Illini buck tradition with changes to 2009 schedule

The Illinois football team was a hot topic at Big Ten media days, but it was not so much for what is expected on the field this season. Multiple questions revolved around the Illini’s 2009 schedule, which is bucking typical Big Ten tradition with two games after Thanksgiving.

The Illini will play at Cincinnati on Nov. 27 and host Fresno State on Dec. 5, creating two open dates earlier in the season. It’s a decision Illinois head coach Ron Zook feels will help his team stay fresh.

“I thought it was important we have some open dates and some rest to give your guys time to heal, and once again, get away from it a little bit. These guys, they’ve got a lot of their plate in every level, in every league,” Zook said.

Unlike most other conferences, the Big Ten conference schedule has long concluded in November the weekend before Thanksgiving, although that will change next season, when conference play wraps up the weekend after. Depending on the calendar year, Big Ten teams sometimes play every week for three months without a break in the schedule.

This season, every Big Ten team except Illinois and Wisconsin will play their 12 games in succession without a week off. The lack of an open date can hurt teams in several ways. It provides little time for recovery in the midst of a tough season and also creates a longer layoff before the holiday bowl games. That’s something Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has experienced multiple times, and he has mixed feelings about playing later.

“As far as playing later and those types of things, part of me is an old traditionalist,” Tressel said. “I always enjoyed Thanksgiving weekend because my dad was a football coach. Typically his season had just ended … that’s a special time … On the other side of things, certainly the arguments about exposure later in the year with conference championship games and those types of things, you know, I’m sure there’s validity from that standpoint.”

Just about every coach at media days addressed the topic of playing later in the season in some manner. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald considers himself a “traditionalist” who “likes everything the way it is.” Minnesota’s Tim Brewster was in favor of playing later, fully endorsing a conference championship game loud and clear. Indiana’s Bill Lynch also was also supportive of the idea.

“I think that would help … if you play 12 straight weeks, that’s tough on these kids,” Lynch said.

“I hope if you give them a week off, though, it’s later in the year … I don’t think if you have it real early it helps you nearly as much as later on when the kids need a little break,” Lynch added.

Penn State’s Joe Paterno called extending the season a “good idea”. But before he did so, the 82-year-old elicited laughter with one of the funnier lines of Monday’s press conferences.

“I try to stay out of the scheduling because we schedule so far ahead, and obviously I can’t be looking who we’re going to be playing in the year 2020. I’m dumb, but I ain’t that dumb. And I’m optimistic, but I ain’t that optimistic,” Paterno said.