Illini take shot at back-to-back bowl berths for the first time since 1992.
Getting to a bowl game is one thing for the Illinois football team. Illinois played in only four bowl games in the last 16 years.
Getting back the following year is another.
Illinois attempts to make bowl appearances in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992, and coach Ron Zook wants the Illini to learn from the berth in the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season. That rags-to-riches run in his third year of a rebuilding process spoiled the Illini and led to attitude problems, Zook admitted Friday at the Big Ten Conference media day.
"Going to the Rose Bowl was probably something that retarded our progress,'' Zook said. "As much as you try to tell everybody we're not there yet, they were hearing but not listening.
"When we went to the Rose Bowl, there wasn't anybody who had ever been to a bowl game. You go to the Rose Bowl. That is the granddaddy of them all. All of a sudden, everybody thought we were there. Maybe the coaches did a little bit also.''
The trip to Pasadena inflated egoes and twisted attittudes in the locker room. Illinois didn't work as hard, and things went downhill fast. After a 5-7 record in 2008 following that Rose Bowl berth, the Illini skidded to 3-9 and overhauled the coaching staff.
Illinois defeated Baylor 38-14 in the Texas Bowl for the program's first bowl victory since 1999, and the question keeps getting asked. What's the key to sustaining success?
"There's a thin line, not a big difference between playing up here (a bowl berth) and down there (a losing season),'' Zook said. "Have we learned? Once you start winning, handling winning is just as important as learning how to win.
"If you don't learn how to handle it, you go back down. It's a learning process.''
From what he's seen since the bowl win, the Illini are working harder rather than living off last season's bowl berth.
The bowl win last year was Zook's first as a head coach, but this issue is a long-time Illini problem. The program has never won bowl games in back-to-back seasons.
Zook could feel the team didn't have the same hunger the year after playing in the Rose Bowl. The talent was there, but Illinois couldn't pile up the wins. Blame it on the players or blame it on the coaches.
"I knew we were a better team on paper,'' he said. "I was hoping that would get us over the hump. It obviously didn't.''
Looking back on his freshman year in 2008, Illini cornerback Tavon Wilson said the Illini's attitude wasn't right."That 5-7 record during my freshman year, that was all on the players,'' Wilson said. "We got relaxed. We didn't take things as seriously as we should. We kind of thought we'd made it already. As a freshman, you come to Illinois and go to the Rose Bowl. That's not the way it happens.
"That's what we preach to our freshmen. You're not coming here and automatically going to a bowl. You come here and do the work.''
It's harder to get a big head when you play in the Texas Bowl in Houston compared to the Rose Bowl, where the pregame pageantry (the Beef Bowl, Malibu Beach and Hollywood) is nearly as impressive as the game's setting.
And Illinois wasn't a big winner last year. The Illini needed a bowl victory to avoid another losing season. Illinois also goes after back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1990.
"It's easier because we lost all those close games,'' Wilson said. "We still have problems finishing games. Now the big focus is on finishing. If we finish games last year, we're 9-3 instead of 6-6.''
Eye on the Illini-- Illinois coach Ron Zook loved playing in Wrigley Field last season and wouldn't mind giving u a home game to play there, but only if he has eight home games in one season.
-- Zook wouldn't talk about freshman defensive lineman Chris Jones, who was jailed and charged with aggravated battery. But Zook said Jones, two other players and a member of the coaching staff (an assistant strength coach) were "jumped'' this summer.
-- Illinois doesn't play Nebraska in football in the next two seasons, but Illinois and Nebraska play a home-and-home series in basketball this winter, according to Nebraska officials.