Even though the Illini lost 34-24 to #19 Washington at Soldier Field this past Saturday, the game can still be considered a success in some regards. Sure, the match-up at the home of the Chicago Bears was about 15,000 tickets from a sell -out but it was the busiest sports weekend Chicagoland has seen in ages.
On Saturday, the Illini were competing for sports fan interest against the White Sox, NASCAR Nationwide, Northwestern, a Fire match and the BMW Classic. And they still drew 47,312 fans to the lakefront in Chicago.
And the game was extra special to Illini Wide Receivers Coach Mike Bellamy- a former Bears player, native of the SouthSide (prepped at Kenwood Academy) and Illini wideout who played with Jeff George in Champaign.
Bellamy was a second round draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1990 and played at Soldier Field, against the Bears during his NFL career. He also spent time on the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Radiers and Chicago Bears rosters.
“Playing for your hometown team is anybody’s thrill, just like if a kid played basketball, playing for the bulls would be the same excitement,” Bellamy said after the game.
Illini Coach Tim Beckman said he would like to bring the Illini back to Chicago for another game soon. On media conference call yesterday, Becks said the Illini are in the “talking phases” to do just that.
The position Bellamy coaches are possibly the most improved of any Illini position group from last season. Senior Ryan Lankford has emerged as a legitimate deep threat, true #1 and JUCO transfer Martize Barr has developed into Nate Scheelhaase’s legit second option.
“They want to be successful and all the hard work they put in during the summer and the fall is showing right now. I think the improvement has come from their commitment,” said Bellamy.
Obviously, it’s a group effort that’ made the Illini improve so much this year, but if there is one individual who is most influential in turning things around, it’s new Illini Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit.
Bellamy talked about what Cubit brings to the table:
“We open up our present on Sunday, which is our game plan, then we show it to the kids on Tuesday and they get excited. it’s like a scientist that has all these ideas that he’s already done. Nothing we’re doing is anything he hasn’t already done. So he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
So what will it take to get the Illini back here in Chicago more often?
Quoting Dave Wischnowsky of CBS Chicago:
the game should only be a beginning for Illinois’ efforts to connect with its vast number of alumni in Chicagoland – as well as the city’s many sports fans and recruits who might develop more interest in the Illini if they saw them more often. As I’ve long said, if Illinois wants more fans to end up making the 140-mile trip down to Champaign for games, they likely have to bring the product up to them first.
And while Saturday’s game might have been a step backwards in the loss column, it was still a step in the right direction in that regard.
From the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine:
In making their schedules, the Illini want to play seven of their 12 games each season (excluding bowls) at home. An eight-game Big Ten schedule (with four games at home and on the road) provides a little wiggle room in giving the Illini a week to work with in their non-conference schedule.
Looking at future Illinois schedules, one non-conference date remains open in 2015 and in 2016. In 2017, the Illini have five conference games at home but already have a scheduled non-conference road game with South Florida. To sum it up, the Illini likely won’t be coming back to Soldier Field before 2019 at the earliest.
Voted one of the top receivers in Illini history in 2008, Mike Bellamy in second in Illinois history in career kickoff return yards, and holds the single game school record for kickoff returns in a game. He was voted second team All-American in 1989.
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Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An analyst for 95.7 The Fan and 1620 The Zone, he also writes for Chicago Now. Follow him on Twitter (@paulmbanks) and FacebookFollow paulmbanks