I'm anxious. I want to make sure I effectively communicate what I'm trying to say. It would be so easy for you to read this and think "Robert is saying the football program is 100% repaired!". Before you read this, please promise that won't be your takeaway. That's not where I'm going. This is not "expect 8+ wins every season from here on out!" or anything like that. This is... an article about the good vibes around the Irwin Indoor.
I've attended many spring practices. 12 years ago they announced that the first 45 minutes of the first practice would be open to the media so I took off a half day of work, drove from St. Louis to Champaign (leaving at 4:00 am), watched that 45 minutes of open practice from 7:00 to 7:45, and then drove to work (in the western suburbs of St. Louis). I can picture warm spring practices I attended (Valentines Day in 2017 when it was somehow 65 degrees) and I can picture freezing spring practices I attended (the famous-to-old-school-IlliniBoard-followers "you guys need to see Chandler Whitmer's arm" practice in 2010). They may have recently restricted spring access, but over the last 14 years, I can tell you a lot of spring stories.
Last week, we were given a half-hour of open practice on Tuesday and 40 minutes on Saturday. And I'm here to tell you that the vibes were close to immaculate. That doesn't mean everything is fixed and that doesn't mean we're going 9-3 next fall. It just means that there's no... tension.
Part of that is my own brain, I'm sure. I'm not walking into the indoor facility (or walking out onto the practice field) hunting for signs that we might actually win six games in the fall. I don't have any of my typical "oh man if our defensive linemen don't look good, next season is already over" angst. I'm pleased with the 8-5 season and looking for signs that we can maintain that level.
But beyond my neuroses, there's still no detectable tension. I used to write about how Lovie practices were "calm" compared to Beckman or Cubit practices, and this isn't that. It's not "the demeanor of the coach is seen in the football that's being played." There's a lack of... worry? That's probably the best way to say it. No one seems concerned.
The coaches are concerned about the football, to be sure. I believe that three Illini defensive backs will be drafted next month, and when you lose three NFL DB's, your defensive coaches are going to be concerned going into the next season. They know the learning curve the new guys will face between now and Labor Day Weekend. That kind of concern exists everywhere - from Ann Arbor to Athens.
It's the tension of "this has to be the year" that's gone. And when I type those words, I'm immediately anxious again. I really, really want you to understand what I'm trying to say here. I feel it's so important.
Maybe I should switch to talking about spring games since many of you attended those. I've attended exactly one tension-free spring game: 2008. Because we had just gone to the Rose Bowl with a sophomore quarterback, there was a big (and happy) crowd. When Mikel Leshoure trucked that one walkon defender near the goalline and got in, we were all "running game is fine - we're gonna dominate again." (We did not dominate.)
Since then - maybe because of the 2008 and 2009 seasons - no spring games have been tension-free. Honestly, last year was probably the closest thing to 2008 I can remember. 2011 and 2012 spring games? 2015? All of them followed bowl seasons but none of them were relaxing.
And that has been somewhat similar to what I've observed at spring practices. The Zook practices were by far the most "confident", but I don't recall them being similar to what I observed last week. This was just a very loose, confident practice. You might want to simplify that as "well, we finally have a capable staff", and I think that's true, but I feel like this goes beyond that.
Maybe I can say it this way: I don't sense a concern over the 2023 season record. That's the vibe. There's just not the typical "we have to win NOW" tension I'm used to sensing. There's no sense of "some HOW, some WAY, we have to get to six wins."
Boom. Just figured it out. I know how to describe this now.
You know how you can go see a band and you can absolutely tell that they're under pressure to promote the new album? You just have this sense that the reason they're playing so much of their new stuff and spending so much time talking about why they wrote those specific songs is that they're under tremendous pressure from the label to have another radio hit. It just doesn't feel like the last time you saw them in concert. They don't even seem to be having very much fun. There's just this... tension in the air.
That's what Illini spring practices have felt like for the better part of the last 14 years. It's not as intense as the concert scenario I'm describing above, but there's always this sense that there's pressure being applied. Coaches are coaching for their jobs. Players are tense. There's seemingly always this dynamic of the former coach's guys vs. the new coach's guys. All of the hard work needs to start translating to wins on Saturday IMMEDIATELY.
The 70 minutes of practice I've watched so far this spring? They don't feel like that at all. They're still intense, and we even got to see some one-on-ones on Saturday where things always get a bit testy, but there's a... jovial feel to practice? Maybe I should describe it like a concert again.
This is the concert where they're playing all the hits. They don't care about pushing the new album because they don't really care about sales. They don't need a radio hit. They've proven themselves, and they're here to play the hits. If you yell your song loud enough, they might even play it. Their goal is simply for the crowd to go home happy. And to have some fun up there on stage.
That's the vibe so far. I'm no longer anxious here because I figured out how to say this. It's as simple as this: the players are working hard but there's zero tension. There's a confidence throughout the entire Irwin Indoor. We know what we're doing, and we plan to do it again.
Haven't seen that before. But I can't wait to see more.
I hope they play Tampa again on the next tour.