SAN FRANCISCO -- Necks craned against the windows on Illinois' bus as it made its way across the Bay Bridge Wednesday, returning to the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco following practice at Laney College in Oakland. Players argued over whether the Golden Gate Bridge stood in the distance. Someone pointed out Alcatraz, where the team had toured the day before.
"There's probably 80 kids on our team that have never been to San Francisco, and maybe 20 who will never get to go again," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said from a seat near the front. "This is an opportunity of a lifetime for a lot of guys."
Sitting one seat in front of Scheelhaase, Illinois running backs coach DeAndre Smith was too preoccupied to take in the sights. Smith, one of seven Illini assistants who will be out of a job come Saturday night, was on the phone with a potential employer, following up on a lead from the night before.
"Coaches have families, and you've got to try to find work," said quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm. "That's what time of year it is. At the same time, we care about the kids, and we want to give them all the help we can to succeed [in the game]."
When college football executives tout the virtues of "the bowl experience," they do so with scenes like the Illini's giddy sightseeing in mind. They say bowl games are a reward for the players, and it's easy to see why after spending a day with Illinois before the Dec. 31 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA. "Everybody should get a chance to indulge in going to a nice city like this," said All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus. "And I especially love the weather."
For many, though, the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has become a national punchline, earning the nickname "The Interim Bowl." Illinois, which started 6-0 but finished 6-6, and UCLA, which needed an NCAA waiver to play in a bowl as a 6-7 team, fired their respective head coaches, Ron Zook and Rick Neuheisel, in late November.
They are among nine teams that will play their bowl games this season under the direction of interim coaches, an unavoidably awkward situation in which a group of lame-duck assistants are charged with coaching their players to victory while simultaneously scrambling to find employment for next season. Including the support staff and coaches' wives and children, no fewer than 40 peoples' futures were thrown into limbo by Illinois' coaching change.
Illinois' situation is particularly clunky. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has already accepted the same job at North Carolina, but is serving as interim head coach for Illinois' bowl game. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrinio already left for Arkansas. New Illini head coach Tim Beckman has been attending practices and holding individual meetings with players and is in San Francisco for the bowl. And an ongoing dispute with the school over the terms of their contracts had several assistants contemplating a mutiny before Saturday's game.
"It's awkward," said Smith. "We've still worked, we still have a game plan, we're going to go out and execute it, but the human side of it is extremely frustrating."
All that got pushed aside Wednesday during a spirited two-hour practice, Illinois' second since arriving in the Bay Area on Monday.
"Why'd we come here?" Koenning asked his players as they knelt at midfield afterward.
"TO WIN!" they replied.
Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert was fired up throughout that practice. "LET'S GO!" he yelled at one of his players when he was slow to line up for a play.
About two hours later, changed out of his practice clothes and standing in the Hyatt atrium, Gilbert, 46, was still fuming, but over an entirely different matter.
"In 25 years [of coaching], this is one of the most difficult things I've been involved with," Gilbert said. "The transition between the administration and us has not been very good. Very unprofessional."
Illinois assistants say they were assured a two-year rollover contract when Zook and former athletic director Ron Guenther hired them; however, when their termination letters arrived a few weeks ago, many were surprised to learn they'd only be paid through Feb. 28. Knowingly or unknowingly, many signed finalized contracts in the summer of 2010 that shortened the school's commitment to them in exchange for other concessions. Gilbert wasn't one of them, but he's angry too, claiming administrators keep pushing off his request to discuss his buyout should he take another job. Several assistants have hired lawyers.
On Wednesday, Gilbert said he and the three other remaining offensive assistants -- Smith, Brohm and Chip Long -- might boycott the game if the school didn't "step up and play in the next 48 hours."
"We all have opportunities to go elsewhere," Gilbert said. "So, if they want the bowl game to be coached, they better decide they want to treat us the right way."
Told of their threat, Illinois AD Mike Thomas said: "That's news to me." Thomas, who inherited the contracts when he arrived from Cincinnati in August, said administrators have held "several discussions" with the coaches but plan to wait until after the bowl to continue them. "I've been through a number of coaching changes, and I've never been in a situation where there's perceived to be a gray area where there really isn't," Thomas said. "We have a contract that's pretty clear, and we intend to honor that contract. We assume they'll honor it as well."
Koenning, overhearing Brohm discussing the subject in the hotel lobby, quickly turned the other way. "I'm staying out of that," Koenning said.
Late Thursday night, Gilbert said the four assistants were waiting to hear back from university representatives about their latest proposal before deciding whether to coach the bowl game. Brohm confirmed their stance. What will fans call the Interim Bowl if half the interim staff bails?
Koenning spent most of Wednesday afternoon touring the city with his family, a welcome departure from the grind of a typical game week. With most of the team's preparation completed back in Champaign, there would be no staff meetings or film review after practice. "This is more laid back than usual," Koenning said.
That was evident at a special teams meeting Wednesday morning in one of the hotel's conference rooms, where Koenning zipped through film of several UCLA games with a group of about 30 players, all dressed in blue Illinois hoodies and orange shorts. Many paid close attention, uttering soft responses when Koenning asked questions. Others yawned. One sat in the back with a leg stretched on a chair, eating a bagel.
Koenning, 51, is one of the sport's most respected defensive coaches, having developed standouts like DaQuan Bowers and the late Gaines Adams at Clemson and DeMarcus Ware at Troy. Prior to joining Zook's staff in early 2010, Koenning was courted by both LSU and Georgia. Beckman had hoped to retain him in Champaign, where in two seasons the Illini improved from 91st nationally in total defense to seventh this season, but Koenning opted for UNC.
Watching Koenning interact with Illinois' players with his mix of harsh love and dry, Southern-twanged humor ("You either hit or get hit," he said at one point during the film session. "This is the season of giving, so let's deliver that a---"), it's hard to believe he wasn't Illinois' head coach all season -- or that he won't be back.
"This moment will never happen again," said Mercilus. "Most of these coaches, you'll never see again. It's a sad thing to think about, but we have to cherish each and every moment we have with them and play hard for them."
Most times when a new coach is hired before a bowl, he holds a news conference, meets briefly with the players and then leaves the team alone until after the game. Beckman has taken the opposite approach. He attended several of Illinois' bowl practices on campus before Christmas break and flew to San Francisco in time to attend Thursday's practice. He plans to be on the sideline for Saturday's game.
Some players, like Scheelhaase, are already curious about Beckman's plans (in particular, whom he'll hire as offensive coordinator). Others haven't given it much thought.
"We're just trying to send these coaches and these seniors out on top and then worry about next year when it comes," said sophomore defensive tackle Akeem Spence. "It's in the back of my mind. You see Coach Beckman at practice from time to time. You know change is about to come."
Most players remain loyal to Zook, who recruited all of them, and speak of wanting to win the bowl for him, but that's hardly the overriding factor. Ask why fans should believe the obscure Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is important to them and Illinois players all bring up the same factoid.
"In the University of Illinois history, we've never won back to back bowl games," said Spence. The Illini beat Baylor in last year's Texas Bowl. "That's why we're playing. We're putting in our all because we're trying to do something that's never been done before."
They'd also very much like to win their first football game since Oct. 9.
Illinois started 6-0 and rose as high as No. 16 in the polls, but began a gradual downward spiral starting with a 17-7 home loss to then 3-3 Ohio State. The defense continued to play well, but the offense -- with a mediocre line, banged-up Scheelhaase and unimpressive running backs -- sputtered. In an embarrassing 27-7 loss to 3-9 Minnesota in the regular-season finale, the offense "stopped playing," said a member of the program.
And that was before losing top running back Jason Ford, who is academically ineligible for the bowl, and fullback Jay Prosch, who is out with a staph infection. Third-string quarterback Miles Osei has been practicing at tailback in case of emergency.
But the Illini's slide may have worked in their favor in the bowl selection process. At 6-6, Illinois could have landed in Detroit to play a MAC team in the Little Caesars Bowl or back in Houston for a second straight year. But with 10 eligible teams for nine bowl slots, Illinois fell out of the Big Ten lineup completely, at which point it became an attractive option for bowls scrambling to fill an at-large spot. Hence a New Year's Eve game in San Francisco, which, while prohibitive for fans (the school was expecting about 4,000 to attend, most of them West Coast alumni) and the band (which could only afford to send 100 of its approximately 350 members), became a treat for the players.
Most began exploring the city's attractions -- Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39 and Chinatown are all near the team hotel -- either Monday night or Tuesday. They had a free afternoon and evening Wednesday to do more, though Koenning advised them to "stay off their feet" so close to the game. And a news conference Tuesday included a pair of VIP guests.
"Myself, Whitney Mercilus and [receiver] A.J. Jenkins got to meet Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott," said Scheelhaase. "I would be very surprised if I ever get that opportunity again."
And then there are the gifts. After a two-day wait, players got to pick up their swag Wednesday afternoon: a Soundmatters Personal Audiophile loudspeaker, Fossil watch and Timbuk2 custom messenger bag.
"People say they have a mediocre record, maybe they don't deserve to go to a bowl game," said Mercilus. "But everybody in the NCAA puts in so much hard work, the players especially. They're putting their bodies on the line every day. This is a time for college athletes to actually have fun, get outside their region, instead of working them to death for a playoff. These kids deserve to have some nice gifts, a nice place to go, and a chance to set the record straight."
Koenning stressed the last part of that message as he addressed the players after practice Wednesday. Following a few words about how they'd performed that day, Koenning began reflecting on the bigger picture.
"This team was kicking ass, going to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl, and then we flinched," Koenning said. "That was on us. We dropped the ball.
"... Let's don't flinch. This is the last opportunity for a lot of you guys to show what you've got. Some of you guys, it might be your first opportunity.
"Guys -- you have been awesome. I'm very appreciative. Now that we're here, let's finish it the right way."
Provided the disgruntled assistants show up, provided they can find enough running backs to last the game and provided the players' legs aren't dead from traversing San Francisco, the Illini intend to do just that.