Spring Games are great fun, and Monday night in Year 1 under Bret Bielema was no different. After last year’s COVID-induced hiatus, Illini Football (with fans!) is back.
Initially not the biggest fan of the Bret Bielema hire, I’ve come to believe in this: At the very least, Illinois Football will be competent. That’s a major step up from what we saw last season and throughout Lovie Smith’s tenure. Bielema’s mantra since the day he arrived at Illinois has been “tough, smart, dependable.” The entire coaching staff wants tough, smart and dependable players. We got a glimpse of that during the Orange vs. Blue Spring Game on Monday night.
It also offered a fun, buzz-worthy and much-needed public salute to our Illinois Men’s Basketball team.
This is not to rail on Lovie Smith and how he did things in Champaign, but Coach Bielema has certainly brought some fun back to Illinois. Watching that Spring Game, seeing how the players interacted with one another and with the coaches, there was a schoolyard sense of bringing enjoyment back to the game of football.
The NFL Pro Bowl is one of the worst events on the sports calendar, but the one thing that game always did well was to bring coaches to your TV screen, calling plays on the live broadcast and telling those at home exactly how things are going to unfold, in real time. Bielema did that on Monday night. Some of his more experienced players did that too on Big Ten Network, including D-lineman Roderick Perry and offensive tackle Vederian Lowe. It was an engaging, up-close and behind the scenes look at how communication during a football game actually works.
Spring games have always been about the fan experience. After a year and a half of (it felt longer than that) going without it live and in person, we’re back!
Who better to toss a pass for a 2-point conversion than Big Ten Network’s very own Elise Menaker?
GO @EliseMenaker! @IlliniFootball drew up a play for our sideline reporter, and she completed the pass and the celebration dance with @DB9_Era: pic.twitter.com/600CiicQtR— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) April 20, 2021
It’s unclear how far in advance Bielema and his staff had this planned out, but this is the type of thing that is sure to garner smiles and social media impressions across the national landscape.
At this early stage in the Bert era, it’s important to endear the team to a wide-ranging fan and media-base. If anything, this was the type of positive attention-grab move this program can surely use as it heads into the summer. Likeability matters now, and then the Illini can start becoming a pain in other teams’ butts once the season begins in August.
It’s all positive. That’s all good.
Honoring the Men’s Hoops Team:
Monday night’s game was about football. Monday night’s halftime show was all about basketball and honoring Brad Underwood’s 2020-21 basketball team.
Ayo Dosunmu introduced to the crowd at halftime, the #Illini are here with the Big Ten tournament trophy pic.twitter.com/h6SvkYwQC6— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) April 20, 2021
If you’re an Illini fan with a pulse, the halftime show had to have moved you and brought out some serious sports emotions. Calling out each player by name. Declaring out loud the records broken by this group this past season. Mentioning the individual honors won by Andre Curbelo, Kofi Cockburn and the biggest superstar Illini Basketball has seen in 16 years, Ayo Dosunmu.
Ayo spoke. The banner was revealed. It’ll fly high up in the rafters at State Farm Center for all to see in the Fall.
We all tuned into the basketball season, but few — if any — of us were able to support the team in person. Monday night’s spring game was an appropriate venue to recognize and celebrate a group of young men who captured our orange and blue hearts for months during the harsh winter season.
We’ll be back. ILL.