Illini notebook by John Supinie
A football guy once said, "I would rather be a bad coach coaching good players than a good coach coaching bad players.''
Summer is over for Big Ten Conference football coaches, who meet today with the media in the Loop for the first of two days of questions and answers about the upcoming season. For Illinois fans, the question is if Ron Zook can coach as well as he can recruit.
Zook begins the third year as Illinois head coach with just four wins combined in the first two seasons but plenty of optimism from a recruiting class generally regarded as a top 20 class nationally. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson (who wants to play on both sides of the ball) are incoming freshmen who highlight the best of Zook's first three classes here.
Because of the recruiting success and improvement on defense last fall, Illinois fans believe. They put their money behind it. Illinois filled more new season ticket orders than any year since the school began charting season ticket sales in 1981.
Illinois' season ticket numbers rose from 23,000 last year to 34,000 this summer. Student sales also rose by 1,700. With Memorial Stadium under a renovation that dropped the capacity to 57,078 for the upcoming season, home-field advantage apparently has returned.
The season opener is Sept. 1 against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The home opener comes Sept. 8 against Western Illinois.
Quarterback Juice Williams not only returned for his sophomore season with some experience, but he's also bigger and stronger. After surviving his first season somewhere near 220 pounds, Williams will enter preseason camp Friday at 233 pounds with only 5 percent body fat. Williams must learn to beat defenses with his passing arm, but the already-powerful runner will now be even harder to tackle.
After split-squad practices on campus Friday and Saturday and media day Sunday, Camp Rantoul opened Monday. Practices are free and open to the public.
Just what to expect from the Illini is undecided, if you look at the preseason magazines. The Sporting News tabbed the Illini as a bowl team. Street & Smith's picked the Illini to finish last in the Big Ten.
By the middle of the month, a final resolution is expected concerning the status of guard Jamar Smith, who missed the final eight games of the basketball season last winter. Smith pleaded guilty to felony driving under the influence in May and served a 15-day sentence in the Champaign County jail. After his release, Smith attended summer semester classes at Illinois.
A disciplinary review board already decided to allow Smith to remain a student. It's possible the school would ask Smith to redshirt the upcoming season and return for 2008-09. On the court, the Illini need Smith's scoring ability, although his production suffered last season when his shooting stroke mysteriously faltered last season.
While skeptics keep an intense eye on Illini recruiting, perhaps coach Bruce Weber might get some indirect help from Michael Jordan, who has already made two trips to the Champaign-Urbana campus to visit his son, freshman walk-on Jeff Jordan.
MJ's presence on campus can't do anything but help Weber's recruiting. MJ already took the incoming freshman class to dinner. Can you imagine Riverton's Mike Tisdale and Peoria Richwood's Billy Cole sitting at the same table with the world's most recognized basketball player?
Big Ten Network
Illinois rebuilt the professional development room at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building into a studio for the Big Ten Network, a cable channel that will revolutionize TV coverage of the conference when it goes live in late August. All 11 of the league's schools provided a satellite studio for the fledgling channel, but saturation through the central Illinois cable systems hasn't yet occurred.
While a contract hasn't been completed with Insight (Comcast takes over the cable companies business in central Illinois later this year), negotiations continue. The Big Ten wants the channel on basic cable. The cable companies apparently prefer the channel on a higher-priced cable television level. The clock is ticking before the football season begins.
We'll see who blinks first.
John Supinie covers University of Illinois athletics for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.