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Brandon Lloyd: ‘I always represent my Illinois colors’

Ten years later, Brandon Lloyd still loudly wears the orange and blue.

Sporting an orange tie covered by a blue Illinois pullover embossed with a Chief Illiniwek patch over his right pectoral, Lloyd appeared to be one of the most excited to attend Saturday’s 10-year reunion of the 2001 Big Ten championship Illini football team.

“Even when I still go to the airport, I like to wear some Illinois stuff,” Lloyd said. “I always get an ‘I-L-L’ from out of nowhere and I’m looking around saying, ‘Who said that?’ I always represent my Illinois colors.”

Lloyd was one of an estimated 50 members of the 2001 outright Big Ten champs – the only team not named Michigan or Ohio State to win the conference title outright since 1999 – to participate in this weekend’s activities, including a tour of the football facilities Friday and a golf outing and dinner on Saturday.

“Ten years have gone by but not a lot has changed with guys’ personalities and the way they look and laugh and the way we interact,” Lloyd said. “It’s interesting to see how long we’ve been apart but how close we are when we get back together.”

Lloyd still emits the star quality he displayed during back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Illini in 2001 and 2002 before foregoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Entering his ninth season in the NFL, Lloyd is riding the momentum of his best season.

In his second season with the Denver Broncos, he led the NFL with 1,448 yards on 77 catches, grabbing 11 touchdowns. The accolades followed, including Pro-Bowl and second-team All-Pro selections.

“It was very exciting,” Lloyd said. “I think about it a lot and I think about what I can do better going into next season and preparing myself and making sure I’m healthy so that when the season does start I’m able to do my best to do that season over again.”

Last season marked the first time Lloyd had more than 50 catches and 750 yards in the NFL. He showed promise in San Francisco after being drafted in the fourth round by the 49ers, accumulating 1,510 receiving yards in three seasons. But his career cooled down during stops with the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears.

So what brought about a career year last season? Opportunity and the right people around him, Lloyd said.

“It was (head coach) Josh McDaniels and it was (quarterback) Kyle Orton,” Lloyd said. “Not taking anything away from what I did to prepare myself for that season. But Coach McDaniels believed I was going to make the plays for him and Kyle Orton trusted that I’d be there to make the catches.”

But leading the NFL in receiving didn’t boost his confidence, Lloyd said, because he never lacked in that area.

“If you ask any of these guys, my confidence has always been sky high,” Lloyd guffawed. “I didn’t need that season to be confident! But it definitely gives you more than enough confidence going into the next season.”

For all his love for Illinois, Lloyd chose to leave the university with a year of eligibility remaining to enter the NFL. The Illini went 1-11 in what would have been Lloyd’s senior season as he struggled to earn repetitions in his first season with the 49ers.

So does Lloyd ever regret not spending one more year in the orange and blue?

“No,” Lloyd said. “I think that wasn’t something that I was on the fence about. I knew that was going to be my path and I wasn’t jumping in head first. I knew what I was getting into and I was willing to do the necessary work to make it successful. I’m just continuing to try to make my path work.”

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Categories: Illini, Illinois football

Keeping with tradition: another early Illini homecoming kickoff

CHAMPAIGN – Considered the first university to celebrate homecoming back in 1910, Illinois sets aside one weekend every October.to celebrate its history. The Illini seem to have added tradition in recent years: early homecoming kickoffs.

Keeping with the tradition, the Oct. 1 homecoming game against Northwestern will kickoff at 11 a.m. It will mark the sixth consecutive Illinois homecoming game to kickoff before noon. The last time Illinois hosted a homecoming kickoff after noon was in 2005, when Penn State crushed the Illini 63-10 after a 6 p.m. kickoff.

Fans – especially college students – would rather set the alarm for a later wake-up call, leaving more time for pregame festivities and tailgating.

Illinois surely would like the game to be held later for its fans but is at the will of the television networks and their deep pockets. Either ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or the Big Ten Network will broadcast the game against Northwestern.

The Illini also announced the game time for the Oct. 22 game at Purdue, which will kick off at 11 a.m. as well. Three of the 12 game times now have been announced on the Illini football schedule. The Sept. 17 home game against Arizona State will kickoff at 6 p.m., the Illini’s lone primetime game.

Categories: Illini, Illinois football

Deep UI roots on Illini AD selection committee

Illinois released the 10 names empowered to find a replacement for retiring athletic director Ron Guenther on Thursday, and a common thread ties all of the selection committee members: experience at Illinois.

Guenther said Monday that he declined a short-term extension at Illinois partly because of a fear that those without an Illinois background – be it a new chancellor and/or independent search firm – would ultimately decide his successor.

But his retirement seems to have prevented that possible outcome as chairman Larry DeBrock, dean of the College of Business and Illinois faculty member since 1979, will be surrounded by others with deep roots on the Champaign-Urbana campus.

Two coaches will serve on the committee: swimming and diving coach Sue Novitzky and wrestling coach Jim Heffernan. Novitzky has served 17 years at Illinois, starting as a volunteer assistant in 1994 before Guenther promoted her to assistant coach in 1997 and ultimately head coach in 2000. Heffernan has spent 18 years in the UI wrestling program, 17 years as an assistant coach under Mark Johnson before taking over as head coach this past season.

Steven Greene is in his 20th year at the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, serving as the director of development. He has played a big role in fund-raising and cultivating major donations for the athletic department. He played fullback for the Illini football team from 1972-75. Two associate athletic directors, Vincent Ille and Susan Young, also will serve on the AD search committee.

Other faculty members on the committee include Cleo D’Arcy, emeritus professor of crop sciences; Chris Span, associate professor of educational policies; and Matt Wheeler, professor of animal sciences. Span received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois in 1995, a master’s in educational policy studies in 1998 and a Ph.D. in educational policy studies in 2001. Wheeler is a former chairman of the Illinois athletic board.

Bob Falato, an alumni, has served on the athletic board and the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

Guenther, whose 19 years at the head of the UI athletic department make him the longest serving AD in the Big Ten, said Monday that he would serve as a “resource” to those charged with finding his replacement but that he would not have input on the final decision.

The committee plans to have a replacement in place by the time Guenther’s current contract expires on June 30. If the process drags past that date, a temporary AD likely would be appointed.

No matter when the replacement is announced, it’s clear that a committee with deep institutional knowledge and experience will be choosing the candidate.

Ron Guenther’s retirment in his own words

Ron Guenther announced Monday morning that he will retire as the head of the Illinois athletic department after 19 years. Guenther, the longest-tenured athletic director in the Big Ten, will step down on June 30, the day his current contract expires.

Guenther’s legacy is a mixed bag. Under his direction, Illinois made drastic improvements to its facilities, including the $121 million Memorial Stadium Renaissance project, the Irwin Indoor Football Facility, the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility, Illinois Field, the UI Outdoor Track and Field and Soccer Stadium, the Atkins Tennis Center, the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, the Demirjian Golf Facility, the Eichelberger Softball Field and the Irwin Football Complex. Guenther’s program has finished in the black for 17 straight seasons, has avoided NCAA investigators and performed well academically.

But an 85-125-2 football record during his tenure has lost him supporters as well as a failure to capitalize on a 2005 Final Four run in basketball. His contract extensions for football coach Ron Zook and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law also drew the ire of fans.

Guenther, who mostly shied from public appearances during his tenure, decided to step away from that spotlight.

He spoke with the media Monday afternoon on a teleconference.

Following is a truncated transcript of that discussion.

On making the decision …

“I think the answer is really in my gut. I thought this would be the time to make the change. We had a lot of new things happening. We got a new board of trustees, a new president and soon to have a chancellor, I felt that it was time to move on to different things.

“It’s actually bittersweet. I think there was a point where emotionally I was very convinced I was ready, but even this morning as I was coming up the steps, it’s five after six and I enjoy that time in the office by myself. I’m thinking, ‘I am going to do something else I just don’t know what it’s going to be.’ The age wasn’t the factor. It was really the timing and maybe a little bit a side of you that says, you know, ‘It’s time for somebody else to drive this.’ It’s been an emotional deal for me. I’d be kidding anybody to say anything different.

“I feel badly that Dr. (President Michael) Hogan’s only been with us for a year but he does have a lot on his plate. This decision here is really a campus decision and it would’ve been one less thing to be thinking about if I would have extended but his reaction was always what was best for me. I think even though he expressed the opinion (for me) to stay and continue, I think this is all going to work out.”

On whether or not he’ll remain involved in Assembly Hall renovation project …

“We’ve got an option that we can look at that. My background has been in development prior to getting directorship. I think there’s an option that we’re going to be looking at over the summer. Certainly, I can assure everybody the Assembly Hall project is finally on track.”

On his role in the search for his successor …

“We’ve got some internal candidates. We’ve got some highly qualified people. I’m obviously there as a resource if the committee wants to ask me some questions, but I’m not going to take the lead in naming names or providing names as my possible successor.”

On where he’s leaving the football program …

“I think that from a facilities standpoint … everything’s in place here for football to have success. …I feel really good about where we’re leaving football. It still comes down to winning games, but from the schedule to the facilities to the salary to the budget, they have everything they need there to have success.”

Reactions from Bruce Weber and Ron Zook on his retirement …

“I’m disappointed. They’re disappointed. But these are discussions I’ve had with both coaches during various times of their seasons, after the season. We talked about the possibility of me being gone. I think they feel good for me personally, but I think I will miss the relationship as much as they’ll miss the relationship.”

On Illini fans’ view of him …

“The fanbase doesn’t see all of that, and I get that. I get what they get. I think that we’ve made changes when we’ve needed to make changes for the right reasons. Sometimes it’s an injury, sometimes it’s an academic casualty, sometimes it’s an official’s call. That’s how close it is. It’s hard to win basketball games and football games at the level the fanbase wants day-in and day-out. The part that some of the fanbase doesn’t understand is our kids are coming here to get an education as well. We’ve obviously professionalized collegiate sports at the highest level but one of the things that needs to be noted is the guys I’ve supported have had very high standards of behavior and they’ve had really high standards of what they expect in the classroom. Then the third piece of that is we set a very high standard for winning and losing as well. I think they know that I get it. I know when coaches don’t have enough budget to get something done.”

For more reaction to Ron Guenther’s retirement, listen to the “Tay and J Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and streaming online at http://www.myconnectfm.com.

Mendenhall stands his ground, accepts the consequences

Rashard Mendenhall hasn’t been able to escape the backlash since he posted a steam of controversial thoughts, questioning gleeful reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death and even inferring a 9/11 conspiracy, on Twitter earlier this week.

But none of the critiques, columns and sports radio backlash seemed to hurt as much as the news yesterday that athletic wear company Champion would drop Mendenhall as an endorser, just four days after the former Illini and Pittsburgh Steelers running back inked a four-year extension with the company. It ends a three-year relationship between Mendenhall and Champion.

“While we respect Mr. Mendenhall’s right to express sincere thoughts regarding potentially controversial topics, we no longer believe that Mr. Mendenhall can appropriately represent Champion and we have notified Mr. Mendenhall that we are ending our business relationship,” the company said in a statement. “Champion has appreciated its association with Mr. Mendenhall during his early professional football career and found him to be a dedicated and conscientious young athlete. We sincerely wish him all the best.”

As I’ve said on the air this week, I have no problem with Mendenhall speaking his mind on issues – even if I completely disagree with him. Despite some media and fans saying athletes should be banned from Twitter, it’s Mendenhall’s First Amendment right to speak his mind.

But if he’s to make such bold statements – a few months ago he agreed with Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson that the NFL labor situation is comparable to slave labor – he must be willing to deal with the consequences, both in verbal backlash and cuts to his wallet.

So far, Mendenhall seems up to the task.

He clarified most of his tweets in a blog, though he didn’t address a since-deleted post that read: “We’ll never know what really happened (on 9/11). I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper demolition style.”

Mendenhall eloquently refused to back down from his stance that people shouldn’t celebrate the death of any human being, even the world’s most wanted terrorist. I find that much more respectable than an agent-fueled, PR-riddled response attempting to save face. Mendenhall obviously sticks to his values and isn’t afraid to enter into the discussion most Americans were having after bin Laden was shot and killed by U.S. Navy Seals on Sunday.

Most athletes stay away from politics, notably Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Others, like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, dive into issues. The 23-year-old Mendenhall seems unafraid to speak his mind to the world, but he may want to think twice before he shares his views, especially those on conspiracy theories.

But if he’s willing to stand his ground in the process, all the power to him. Just be willing to pay for all your Champion hoodies in the future.

Categories: Illinois football

Illini Martez Wilson: ‘It’s an honor’ to play for Saints

CHICAGO – Martez Wilson visited New Orleans during the NFL Draft process, but didn’t really have time to enjoy the Big Easy during his meetings with the Saints.

“It was just a business trip,” the Chicago native said.

The former Illini linebacker will have plenty of time to enjoy all that Nawlins has to offer after being selected by the Super Bowl XLIV champions in the third round  of the draft (72nd overall) on Friday.

“I’m happy. I’m blessed,” Wilson said. “I’m happy my name’s off the board and I’ll be going to a place I think I fit very well. I’m around good coaches, good people, and I’m happy with that.”

Wilson watched the draft with family in Chicago. He waited a little longer than some draft analysts thought. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated Wilson as the top inside linebacker in the draft – even though Wilson will play outside linebacker with the Saints – but he was the eighth linebacker selected.

“The past couple of days was all right,” Wilson said. “Today was just more of an anticipation day, just waiting to hear my name called. I was relaxed but just anticipating.”

The Saints finished 2010 with an 11-5 record to earn the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs before being upset by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round. But New Orleans figures to remain a contender with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees leading the explosive offense.

Wilson may not know much about New Orleans but predicts he’ll enjoy his digs.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Wilson said. “I’m playing with the defending champs not too long ago. I’m going to be playing alongside Jonathan Vilma. (Defensive tackle) Sedrick Ellis is in front of me. It’s a great honor. I can’t wait.”

Categories: Illinois football

Illini Mikel Leshoure: ‘Blessing’ to be picked by Lions

Mikel Leshoure described his selection by the Detroit Lions with the 57th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft as “the biggest moment of my life.”

Leshoure, the 25th selection in the second round, also registered pretty high on the excitement scale when he was told during a teleconference Friday night that Illini teammate Martez Wilson had been drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round with the 72nd overall pick.

“Oh man, Tez is going to the Saints!” Leshoure said. “Oh, that’s crazy. Haha, yeah!”

Leshoure was equally emotional when Corey Liuget shook hands with NFL commission Roger Goodell on Thursday after the former Illini defensive tackle was selected 18th overall by the San Diego Chargers.

“When I saw Corey walk across that stage, it felt like it was me,” Leshoure said. “I got goosebumps. Now that Tez (was picked), I feel like everything is complete. I’m happy for all three of us.”

The Lions traded back into the second round to select Leshoure to complement the quick-footed Jahvid Best, who ran for 867 yards and 12 touchdowns last year as a rookie. Detroit finished in third place in the NFC North in 2010 with a 6-10 record but could have been better if starting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, had not sat 13 games due to injury.

But the Lions are projecting upward with Stafford, Best, Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Lions added Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the 13th overall selection and Boise State wide receiver Titus Young in the second round.

“When I went on my visit there, I had a good vibe with the coaches,” Leshoure said. “I like the facilities and everything was good. To see that they feel the same about me, it just feels good. I’m excited to get to work with everyone in that organization.”

Leshoure was the fourth running back selected, behind Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams and California’s Shane Vereen. Leshoure didn’t take too much offense.

“That’s something I can’t control,” Leshoure said. “I wish them the best of luck.”

The phone call ended a whirlwind year for Leshoure, who began 2010 spring practice competing for the starting job with classmate Jason Ford. But 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns later, Leshoure begins his NFL dream.

“For me to get drafted wherever was a blessing whether it was a first round pick or a second rounder or beyond that was still a blessing,” Leshoure said.

“To get that call was just like the earth was lifted off my shoulders.”

Categories: Illinois football