Illinois was at an extreme low point when Ron Zook was named head coach five years ago. He went around the country looking for men who were committed to turning around the program, to lift it back into the upper echelon of the Big 10 Conference and regain national respect.
Those who accepted that great challenge and responsibility will be honored before the Fresno State game Saturday. Several of them spoke to the media about their experiences and memories.
Doug Pilcher is the last Illini player recruited by Ron Turner's staff. The Hinsdale Central product maintained his commitment when Zook replaced Turner and is now the elder gentleman of the team. A quality defensive end starter for four years, Pilcher knows Saturday will be an emotional time for him.
"It's gonna be a sad day. It's gonna be my last game here, but I've had a great five years. I'm just looking forward to going out and playing my best game."
He had high hopes for a great final season, but it didn't materialize. Despite the frustrations in a 3-8 season, his thoughts rest firmly on beating FSU.
"It's tough. The season's not gone the way we'd like. It is what it is, we can't change the past. We're just looking forward to Fresno State. We've got to come together this week, work hard and get this win. End this season on a high note."
He has many memories that will last a lifetime.
"There's so many things. Being around the guys. Having a hundred teammates looking after you. Just going to work every day and playing on some of the biggest stages in the country. It's been a great five years."
Second team All-Conference guard Jon Asamoah knows Saturday will be an emotional day for him.
"It still hasn't hit me yet. I know when the day comes I'm gonna be sad. I'm gonna look around and see the guys I've been around, the guys I live with. It's gonna be sad because they're gonna keep doing their thing, and I'll be going onto a new adventure."
Asamoah got off to a slow start this fall after mononucleosis weakened him at Camp Rantoul. Like his teammates, he was shocked at the Illini's lack of success this season. He realizes it was probably harder for his younger teammates to accept than himself.
"You've just got to reset. You're going against new guys this game. This is it. You can't live in the past, you've got to move on to the next one. Yes, it probably is harder for the younger guys because they're worried about everything that's going on. I know I can't change any mistake I made. I've got to forget about it and go on to the next play."
The Rich East product has many memories, but four stick out.
"When they announced the Rose Bowl, I was sitting on the couch with Randall Hunt my roommate, that's one of them. When we beat Penn State that year. It was our first big game.
"Michigan this year was like, 'Oh, finally.' We were so sick, and then wow. And then my first snap against Ohio my freshman year. It was just the loneliest feeling ever, going from the packed sideline to the field. I'll never forget it."
Asamoah says there is still reason to fire up and try to beat Fresno State.
"It'd be important. The last game is the one you remember. I want to leave with a victory."
Defensive tackle Sirod Williams thought last year would be his final hurrah. But an ACL tear in Camp Rantoul forced him to apply for a redshirt season. It is a little easier to accept now.
"I'm more prepared for it than the other seniors because of my injury."
Perhaps his biggest regret is the fact he has played this year at less than full strength. He couldn't practice full time, and his playing time was limited.
"I don't think it's ever been 100%. Usually, it takes two years to feel real comfortable. I already had the injury on my other knee, so I know it takes about 2 years. But during the games, my knee felt fine."
The Garfield Heights, Ohio, native expected a better final season also. He can't provide an explanation for what went wrong.
"I wish I could give an answer for that. I really don't know. Coming in this year I thought Illinois would go to a big bowl game. Even with three or four losses, we could go to a nice bowl. But I really don't have an answer."
When asked the Illini's prospects for the future, he used a bottom line approach.
"You could say we were better this year than last year, and you could say we'll be better next year than this year. But we've got to come out with wins. It don't matter about talent. What matters is wins."
Like his senior mates, Williams has one extra special memory.
"I guess my highlight would be going to the Rose Bowl and getting that Rose Bowl ring."
Will he miss college football?
"I could say I'll miss it a little bit. But sitting at home feeling rested, my legs won't hurt so much. I guess I'll take it."
Center Eric Block knows what to expect. A last minute reprive by the NCAA gave him a special gift of one more year.
"I had the opportunity to go through Senior Day last year. I thought I was done playing football, but I got another shot to do it. So I'm definitely intending to make the best of it."
The New Orleans product remembers all the highs and lows of his career.
"We've had some great times. The Rose Bowl is about as high as you can possibly be. We've had some rough times too. But that's life. You're gonna have some good times, and you're gonna have some bad times. You've got to keep rolling with the punches."
He is proud to have helped Illinois improve its football program. He is firm in his resolve.
"Absolutely. No doubt about it. When I got here, we were really struggling. We were just trying to do whatever we could do to compete. We're competitive now. Every game we go into, we feel we can win.
"We have reason to believe that. We're a good football team, and we can play with and beat any team in the country. It hasn't happened that way this year for whatever reason. But the state of Illinois football is still much better than when I got here."
Reserve defensive tackle Rahkeem Smith, a Willowbrook native, hasn't thought much yet about Senior Day.
"It's gone by pretty fast. We've been through a lot, and it's starting to get to the end. It's good to go out with the guys I came in with."
He sites the Rose Bowl as his best memory. Smith started his career at linebacker, moved to fullback and now the defensive line. He may have found his niche at tackle, but he has no redshirt year to take advantage of it.
"Yeah, that would be fun to have another year. I'd have a chance to get the position down. But my time's running out."
Quarterback Juice Williams has started for four seasons. Illini fortunes have ridden on his ups and downs. Like everything else, he has approached the end of his career in a straightforward way. And yet, even now he is more concerned about preparing for Fresno State.
"I've had a chance to really reflect on my college career, the times I've had here. I don't regret anything that happened. Throughout all the memories, I still want to go out there and try to win. So I'm still taking the same approach, watching film, attacking practice the same way. And just appreciate the time I have with my teammates.
"I just try to attack it as if nothing has happened, like it's the first game of my career. It's just a game. I try not to think about all the things that come along with it. Of course, there's gonna be some emotional feelings here and there, just reflecting on everything. But at the same time, we still have a game to play. That's probably more important."
Illinois coach Ron Zook has a special allegiance to these seniors. They got on his bandwagon and believed in his vision.
"This last game to me is about our seniors. It's about these guys playing their last game for the University of Illinois, playing their last game for the Illini, playing their last game in Memorial Stadium. Obviously, they've done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things.
"I think one thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to. I think when they came here it wasn't necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that.
"As I told our football team after the game on Saturday, they basically recruited everybody in this room. We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to win this game."