Gridiron gals: Female fans take to the turf for an afternoon of football and fun



By Daniel Johnson

Ron Zook’s pacing is nothing new.

Step, step. Hand to his mouth, then back down to his side. His hands in his pockets and out again.

Never mind that it’s a Saturday in late June. Zook still has an intent, consistent gait.

NCAA restrictions limit the time that the coach can spend with the players, making any sort of meeting highly improbable, but that’s more or less irrelevant, with a complete ensemble of players nowhere to be found.

Zook is pacing in front of a crowd of all female football fans, eager to pick his and his coaching staff’s brains on all things football.

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The day-long Women’s Clinic is something that Zook started while coaching at Florida and has carried on in Champaign as a way for women to learn about the game and see the work that goes on behind closed doors.

“It’s something that (defensive coordinator) Dan Disch and some of the other coaches put together while in Florida,” Zook’s wife Denise said. “It was really popular down there, and they decided to bring it with them. So many people don’t get to see what the coaches are doing during the week, what they do on Monday, what they do on Sunday.

“It makes it so much more personal for the women. This is their team, as a fan, as a former student, or whatever they have. But something like this is their chance to see the team much more personally.”

Fruit of a summer’s labor

Denise and four other coaches’ wives held a panel for the women at hand – “the Illini version of ‘The View,'” Disch joked. The panel served as one of the activities for camp attendees during their five-hour session at Irwin Indoor Football Complex and Memorial Stadium.

The women asked players and wives obvious, football-related questions, but also about personal lives, school and things that were more about the player than the game itself.

The subject of Camp Rantoul was brought up during the player panel and working in the dog days of August. Players and coaches briefly touched upon the time and joked about the amount of work that is put in. When the wives panel came to a close, Zook reiterated the subject, but let the crowd know of the relief that can come at the close of camp.

“You guys have heard about the players and coaches talk about Camp Rantoul, I told you how the coaches can put their heads down in focus,” Zook said of the intensity at the camp. “But, Melinda (Wolford, wife of offensive line coach Mike) happened to just have a baby, and that happened to be just nine months after Camp Rantoul. Y’all figure that one out.”

“It was during Rantoul,” Melinda said of the conception, trying not to laugh. “It was on my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday,” Zook exclaimed, laughing.

Why come?

“It’s refreshing for us to see everyone here that is so excited and eager to learn about football,” Disch said. “They can get to talk to the players, talk to the wives, and get to ask questions, get to know the personalities of the team. I think it makes them more appreciative of us and can make them a better fan. The more die-hard fans you can get the better.”

After meeting with players, the women broke into groups of about 40 to first learn about the three phases of the game, offense, defense and special teams, and then to tour the facilities.

“I’ve been to many, many games, but when you come to something like this, it’s a completely different story,” University alumna Kathy Murray said. “Being here on the field is a big change, but a nice one,”

Murray, 46, is a Palatine, Ill., native who is a bit removed from the area for most of the year, but Carrie May-Borich and Barbara Neal of Urbana and Champaign, respectively, have a geographic inclination to the team.

“I’ve had season tickets now going onto 22-straight years, and this will be my third time coming to the camp.” May-Borich said. “Even so, though, my husband can’t say he’s been in the locker room, down in the tunnels and all that. It’s a special experience for us.”

“The only other time I’ve got to be on a field was in marching band,” Neal said. “It’s something that I think those of us that come every year really look forward to, and we’re all bringing in our friends, too.”

‘High and tight’

While on Zupke Field, the women ran drills with the coaches, including ball-security practice with running back coach Reggie Mitchell. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley had tips for the would-be carriers earlier in the day. Groups of women were funneling in and out of the squad room, a space used for film breakdown and press conferences, to watch how to properly run with the ball. Mitchell was running through bad and good game examples with the women after he, Locksley and Wolford physically demonstrated the correct form to the women.

Mitchell covered the five points of pressure, a technique using the hands, wrist, chest and forearm, to keep the ball secure. The coaches instructed the group, jabbing shots at each other and players whenever they so felt.

With the women on the field, Locksley repeated his advice to where the ball should be positioned on one’s body.

He said that running with the ball properly is what has helped the Illini drastically cut down on turnovers.

The Locksley philosophy on ball security?

“Keep the ball high and tight, like my ass.”