Illinois welcomes fans, family back to Memorial Stadium for first time since 2019


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Illinois head coach Brett Bielema directs his players during Spring practice on March 23. Bielema has now completed 12 spring practices, with the spring game scheduled for Monday.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Bret Bielema hasn’t had much time to soak in his new home of Champaign. On top of COVID-19 restrictions inhibiting everyone’s daily activities in the community, Bielema has been working nearly 24/7 the last four months to revive a dying Illinois football program.
And in the little free time he does have, Bielema uses it to bond with his wife and two daughters, especially on Fridays when he gets out of the office a little earlier to pick up his girls from daycare. With the weather finally breaking in the midwest, Bielema took Briella and Brexli to the park Friday for some quality daddy-daughter time, rare moments he cherishes the most.
While sitting on the swings, deciding whether to move to the jungle gym or the balance beams next, Bielema was approached by a gentleman who snapped Bielema back to the reality of working in a college environment. The man, who was happy to see Bielema as the new Illinois head coach, expressed his excitement for Monday’s Orange and Blue spring game, saying, “I can’t wait to get in there Monday night; it’s been a long time,” referring to Memorial Stadium.
“It took me back to being in a community and being a normal person in this community,” Bielema said. “And also the outreach we will have. It’s the first time we’ll have people in Memorial Stadium in a long time. It’s the first time the community has been able to see this new edition of what we are at the University of Illinois. I know there’s a lot of excitement and for that I’m excited.”
On Monday, the Illini football head coach will get the opportunity to embrace even more of the Champaign community for the first time while showing off the progress he’s made with a struggling Illinois program with the spring game, which will allow for about 7,500 Illini fans and family of student athletes.
While there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the new staff, Bielema is more excited for his team to play in front of their families for the first time in over a year and get a real look at each player’s in-game potential.
The majority of power-five teams played their spring games over the weekend, giving the Illini a chance to headline the Big Ten Network Monday night.
“I think they’re excited to be in front of their family and friends,” Bielema said. “I just think there’s a certain element to you as a player that you know your parents are going to be there; your family, your friends, you’re being watched on national TV, is gonna bring you a little juice. I think we’ll see a good, active frenzy on Monday night, and we’ll play within our mind and play a safe, effective ball game and see where we stand.”
The game will feature an orange team — the group Bielema feels would be starters as of now — and the blue team — the backups. It will be mostly a traditional football game in terms of scoring, but scores for the blue team will count as double the points. There will be no live kicking situations, but after the first and third quarters there will be rapid fire field goals — the execution of six field goals as quickly as possible.
Having completed 12 spring practices now, Bielema and his staff have seen growth from the entire team, not just from a football and physicality standpoint, but also by the way the guys approach practices and recovery.
Now, Bielema is ready to see the strides his team and each position coach has made when it comes to the new schemes and goals. While the staff won’t get too caught up in the final score or some of the miniscule stats, Bielema does need to see his new team compete at a high level and minimize controllable mistakes.
“I’ve been preaching to our guys quite a bit … before you can win a game you’ve got to stop losing it,” Bielema said. “The three easiest ways to lose a game are through turnovers, mental errors and penalties. So if we can be positive in that area and we can not turn the ball over offensively, create some turnover defensively, which is a tough situation when you’re playing each other. But if we can have few to no penalties and few to no mental errors, if we can make that step and show that we can execute and put ourselves in position to win a game, then we’re going in the right direction.”
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