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Peoria Chiefs hit home run with LeBron promotion

PEORIA– Minor-league baseball marketing departments have some of the most creative folks in the world. They have to be when their job is to attract baseball fans to come watch players with names they’ve never heard before.

Cheap beer, free food and other gimmicks put butts in the seats (my favorite has to be “Office Space Night,” when the Dunedin Blue Jays celebrated the late ’90s comedy film, complete with a “flair” contest and printer-smashing).

But the front office of the Peoria Chiefs, the Chicago Cubs Class A minor-league affiliate, came up with a doozy earlier this week when about 12 staff members sat around three tables for lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Like most sports fans, the central Illinois natives had plenty of Miami Heat hate and enjoyed watching LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat blow a 2-1 series lead, losing the final three games to the Dallas Mavericks and failing to claim the first of James’ “not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championship guarantee during last July’s pyro-filled, 11-month-too-early celebration.

Watching highlights of the Heat’s Game 6 loss to the Mavericks on Monday, the Chiefs staff tossed crazy idea around the table.

“We all kind of laughed and we all kind of looked around and each other and it just kind of clicked,” Chiefs spokesman Nathan Baliva said Wednesday.

The Chiefs will have plenty of fun at LeBron’s expense, handing out LeBron James replica rings during Thursday’s 7 p.m. home game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at O’Brien Field. But fans won’t have the chance to take the prizes home, because the replica ring “like LeBron’s is non-existent,” a press release said.

Then the ideas built up like LeBron’s turnovers in Game 6.

One fan will win a replica of James’ Finals MVP award – again a non-existent award because Dirk Nowitzki claimed the 2011 Finals MVP – and fans also will have the opportunity to learn the Heimlich maneuver “to prevent themselves or their colleagues from choking in a big situation,” the release said.

The Chiefs also will honor the ’90s Chicago Bulls, which won six NBA championships behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen “to celebrate a true champion,” the release said.

The Chiefs also contemplated skipping the fourth quarter “to honor King James who took off the fourth quarter of every finals game,” the release said. James scored a combined 18 points in the fourth quarter of the six-game series. But Baliva said Wednesday that the Midwest League nixed that idea.

The promotion is not yet a box office hit. “Plenty of tickets” are available for Thursday’s game, Baliva said, adding that attendance usually relies on the weather. But the Chiefs’ gimmick has charmed the mainstream media.

ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, CBSSports.com, USA Today, CNN and the Huffington Post all have posted online stories about the non-giveaway. During nine years with the team, Baliva has never fielded so many calls about a promotion. Not since Cubs great Ryne Sandberg took over as manager in 2006 have the Peoria Chiefs made headline news.

“I don’t know if we thought it was going to do what it has done,” Baliva said.

Not all love the promotion. Chiefs pitcher Cameron Greathouse, a Heat fan, joked with the team that he might not show up to Thursday’s game out of protest.

But for the Chiefs, sitting at 33-31 and 8.5 games back in the MID Western division, any boost to attendance and their Q rating is a win. Peoria has averaged about 2,500, though only about 1,600 came through the turnstiles last Thursday.

Baliva said attendance usually is down during April and May but decreased more this season because of a wet spring. The team averaged 3,300 last year and hopes the ring-less promotion is the spark for the summer.

“If it sells a couple hundred extra tickets, it’ll be a success,” Baliva said. “We see other teams doing stuff like this. Now, we got one.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Spring practice Day 2: Illini green, thin at linebacker

A bowl win hasn’t cured all of the Illini football team’s ails this spring.

“My head’s pounding about the same as always,” Illinois defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said Thursday.

The linebacker position might give Koenning the most headaches as he and the Illini coaches search for capable replacements for 2010 starters MARTEZ WILSON, anAll-Big Ten first team selection, and NATE BUSSEY, who was at his collegiate team’s practice Thursday as he continues to work out in Champaign in preparation for the NFL Draft.

Senior IAN THOMAS moves back to the inside after playing on the weakside last year and seems entrenched as a starter, but the Illini have little experience elsewhere.

Sophomore Jonathan Brown had promising moments as a freshman and has the inside track to the weakside starting spot, while junior ASHANTE WILLIAMS has a head start on filling Bussey’s spot on the strongside.

“Ashante got a whole lot of reps last year,” Koenning said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. Athletically he’s probably a guy that can do more things than Bussey. He’s a different type of player.”

Sophomore Brandon Denmark moved to the inside, and redshirt freshman Houston Bates will provide depth. But Koenning said the young players will have to walk before they run.

“Obviously, we have a long way to go,” defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said. “We got to get better. There’s a lot of fundamental things we have to improve upon.

“At the linebacker position you can hurt yourself so badly by using poor footwork. We have major concentration on just stance and start, just doing our footwork right. Especially when you’re in shorts and shells, you can’t really practice too much shedding and all that stuff but you sure can practice stance and starts and not get yourself out of position on the first step so it makes it harder to get to the ball.”

Keonning said the Illini will have to rely on true freshmen next year to add depth.

 

Day 2 Notes

The Illini practiced outdoors on the East Practice Fields on Thursday after spending Tuesday inside Irwin Indoor Practice Facility. The temperature hovered around 32 degrees when practice started at 8 a.m., but most of the players wore shorts and long-sleeve T-shirts under their shoulder pads. Even offensive coordinator PAUL PETRINO wore shorts in the freezing weather, though the sun peaked out to heat up the field at the conclusion of practice at about 10 a.m. The Illini’s next practice will be Saturday from 2-4:30 p.m.

Overall, Illinois coach RON ZOOK was pleased with his team’s second session. “We competed,” Zook said. “It’s like night and day compared to last year because we’re building on a system.”

Expect the Illini practice – which like all of spring practices is open to the public – to be in the elements, either on the East Practice Fields or inside Memorial Stadium, as the forecast calls for an afternoon high of 52 degrees.

 

*****

Wide receiver ANTHONY WILLIAMS, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, practice on Thursday after sitting out Thursday for academic issues. Williams bolsters the Illini’s thin spring receiving core, as senior A.J. JENKINS (wrist) and sophomore Darius Millines (foot) are sidelined due to injury.

 

*****

A few players got into a very short tussle during Tuesday’s practice, but no such incidents happened today. Most of the players seemed to bring energy. But Petrino was the loudest during Thursday’s positional drills and new defensive backs coach MIKE GILLHAMER also ran around the field during 7-on-7 drills.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

NCAA gives Illini a No. 9 seed, plenty of storylines

CHAMPAIGN – So the NCAA Tournament Committee doesn’t consider storylines, huh?

The 10-member panel’s decision to place Illinois as a No. 9 seed in Tulsa, Okla., drew a chuckle from the assembled media covering Selection Sunday in the Memorial Stadium press box.

Actually, some reporters began laughing as soon as Kansas (the No. 1 seed) and UNLV (No. 8 seed) were placed at the same site in the Southwest bracket – before Illinois was revealed as an at-large bid – predicting the Illini would complete the perfect package for one corner of the bracket.

With former Illini coaches Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Bill Self (Kansas) blocking the Illini’s path to the Sweet Sixteen, media won’t have to reach for angles this week.

“I think they always look for storylines to add to the drama of March Madness,” said Illini coach Bruce Weber, who succeeded Self and coached against Kruger as an assistant coach at Purdue.

“I’m sure CBS appreciates it.”

Kruger won one Big Ten regular season title, advanced to two Big Ten Tournament championship games and won three NCAA Tournament games in four seasons (1996-2000) at Illinois.

“A guy I’ve known for a long, long time,” Weber said.

Self took over for Kruger and claimed a share of two Big Ten regular season titles, won the 2003 Big Ten Tournament and led the Illini to an Elite Eight appearance in 2001 and a Sweet Sixteen in 2002. After the 2002-03 season, Self left for Kansas, where he won the 2008 national championship to go along with seven straight Big 12 Conference titles.

Most of the current Illini players are too young to distinctively remember Kruger – the seniors were in grade school when the former Illinois coach jumped to the NBA to coach the Atlanta Hawks. All are familiar with Self’s work at Kansas, and Demetri McCamey was recruited by the former Illini coach.

But for an Illini team that had missed two of the last three tournaments, the storyline was a happy one as long as its name appeared on CBS’ hour-long bracket unveiling.

Weber was absent from the team’s celebration at the Ubben Basketball Complex. Nerves led the eighth-year coach out the door of his office and the building for a sunset stroll. He didn’t see the Illini’s name flash across the television. A sudden stream of congratulatory text messages tipped him off to the happy – or relieving – news.

“I’m excited, but it’s relief also just because you didn’t know,” Weber said. “Last year was so hard to deal with.”

Its No. 9 seed showed Illinois was firmly in the tournament despite unrest from fans. Though seeing bubble teams like UAB, Clemson and Penn State pop up on the TV screens in the players’ lounge added to the uncertainty of the unknown.

“It wasn’t fun to watch the first two brackets go by, but I was still pretty confident we were in,” senior Bill Cole said. “A big sigh of relief and everyone jumped up and kind of hugged each other and was cheering really loud when we saw our name called.”

Most Illini fans that called into the radio show Friday afternoon following a 60-55 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal – the latest inexplicable late-game collapse  – said the 2010-11 squad doesn’t deserve a NCAA Tournament invitation. One even suggested that Bruce Weber and the Illini athletic department turn down a bid.

Back to reality, the Illini found a way in thanks to an expanded field (three more teams than last year) and the mediocrity among the six power conferences. Like the 2009-10 team that missed last March’s field of 65, this team has stumbled into March, losing 10 of its final 16.

“We’ve had some good moments. We’ve had some disappointing moments,” Weber said. “I’m just hoping for the kids’ sake and the program’s sake, we can finish on a positive note.”

The four Illini seniors reiterated a familiar refrain Sunday: you’re remembered most for what you do last.

What would make the season more memorable for the Illini than beating Kruger and Self – the latter of which still receives credit for recruiting the talent that Weber coached to the 2005 NCAA Championship – on the way to an unlikely Sweet Sixteen?

 Illinois has the chance to turn around a disappointing season in just one weekend at Tulsa, thanks to the NCAA Tournament Committee’s taste for drama.

Categories: Uncategorized

Day after reaction: Purdue 81, Illinois 70

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Yup. Illinois is 16-9 and 6-6 in the Big Ten, just a half game ahead of Michigan and Penn State.

Would that have been surprising in November? Sure.

But by now, we’ve had a large enough sampling of this Illini squad to know what it is: a mediocre team with little on-the-court leadership, a mercurial senior point guard, post players with arms that don’t fill their sleeves  and a few handfuls of underclassmen that are without-a-doubt talented but not-yet-ready for Big Ten battles.

The Illini were beat by a better team on Sunday. JaJuan Johnson should be an All-American, and E’Twaun Moore isn’t far behind. With Demetri McCamey struggling, Illinois has no one near that caliber.

And the rest of the Boilermakers roster knows its role.

D.J. Byrd (three offensive rebounds, three assists), Lewis Jackson (10 points, five assists), Ryne Smith (eight points, six rebounds) and Kelsey Barlow (nine points, five rebounds) made the hustle-plays that complement Purdue’s two superstars.

Meanwhile, the Illini didn’t make those plays, again. This team teased when it scored 46 points on the Matto, or play-hard, chart on Thursday, enough to beat a Minnesota team with worse guard play than many mid-majors. But the law of averages came into play on Sunday, when the Illini scored 25 points. Illinois is averaging 25.2 Matto points in Big Ten play.

 

Paul, Davis continue to shine

While McCamey and Mike Tisdale struggles continue, Illini senior Mike Davis and sophomore Brandon Paul have been the pinnacles of consistency. Davis (16 points and seven rebounds) has now scored in double figures in six of the last seven games.

With McCamey deferring to his teammates, Paul has taken over as lead dog on offense. Though he still forces some jumpers, the sophomore took the ball to the basket several times against Purdue and was rewarded with a 9-for-10 day at the free-throw line. A career-high 23 points gave him an 18.7 point average over the last three games.

But Bill Cole (1-for-3 shooting in 23 minutes) and Jereme Richmond (two points, four fouls, five turnovers) didn’t have the performances, especially on the glass, that Illinois needed to beat a very good Purdue team.

Categories: Uncategorized

Now playing: Tay and J podcasts

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Ever since I accepted my job at Stevie Jay Broadcasting, I’ve craved for podcasts. I know not all that would like to listen to our show have the time to tune in on their radio dial or on our live stream at myconnectfm.com. It may have taken a month, but we finally have podcasts available for our listeners.

We won’t podcast the entire three-hour Tay and J Show, but we’ll snip out the highlights, including most of the interviews we do with players, coaches and media with insight into the Illini, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bears, area preps, etc. All you have to do is go to www.myconnectfm.com/podcasts/ and podcasts of that day’s 3-6 p.m. show will be available by 7 p.m. Click on the link and download the audio file to play on your computer or iPod.

We already have four podcasts up from our last three shows, including interviews with Matt Sylvester and Chester Frazier and reaction from Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Categories: Uncategorized

Rashard Mendenhall keeps tabs on Illini, Leshoure despite disconnect with Zook

January 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Rashard Mendenhall didn’t leave the Illinois football program on the best of terms, but the Pittsburgh Steelers running back said he keeps tabs on Illini athletics, including the football team.

“My relationship with the school is cool. My relationship with the school has always been cool,” Mendenhall said on the “Tay and J Show” on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM on Wednesday. “I don’t have any problems with (Illinois coach Ron) Zook or nothing like that. It was just the way things were run around there it was just tough and coming out. As far as right now, they just won their bowl game. I hope everything’s good and going well with them, but I still love the University of Illinois.”

After entering the NFL Draft after his junior season in 2008, Mendenhall and Zook – who recently completed his sixth season at Illinois -experienced a falling out when Mendenhall decided to enter the NFL Draft. He was selected by the Steelers with the 23rd overall pick.

“To tell you the truth, as long as Ron Zook is there it will be hard for me to support the University of Illinois football team,” Mendenhall said in a quote to The News-Gazette in 2008.

But Mendenhall said he keeps up with the Illini football team “a little bit.”

“That being my alma mater, you like to see things and catch some of the games, not just with football but other sports and people you went to school with it,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “It’s cool to keep an eye or ear or two on it a little bit.”

Former Illini running back Mikel Leshoure received a text message from Mendenhall after the junior broke Mendenhall’s single-season rushing record during the Illini’s 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor on Dec. 29.

“Records were made to be broken,” Mendenhall said. “I was glad to see him get it. That’s something he can cherish. He’s going to be in the same position when someone breaks his (record).”

Mendenhall, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL, supported Leshoure’s decision to enter the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.

“I think he made the right decision,” Mendenhall said. “I feel like he did everything he can at that level to step out and test the waters. His dream’s right in front of him, so I think it makes sense for him to go out and get it.

“He’s a downhill runner. He’s just a natural runner. He’s got a good feel for the game and just where to fit things. So I think whatever system he’s in he can figure it out because he’s a natural runner and he’s instinctive.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Picking up the pen (or keyboard) again

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I always thought I wanted to get into radio, but I never thought it would happen this soon. After four years in the professional world of print publications, Stevie Jay somehow talked me into jumping into the ridiculous world of radio. Instead of spending all day on 500 words, I’m filling about an hour and 40 minutes of airtime – thankfully I have my long-winded cohost Lon Tay with me – each day I punch the clock. And while I’m still adjusting to this broadcast thing and don’t exactly have the golden pipes of Marv Albert – I’m more alto then tenor – I’m having a blast in this new endeavor which brings new challenges and new laughs everyday.

But while I love the debate of sports radio, the interaction with callers and the excitement/dread of not knowing where each minute of the show will go, I do miss just one part of my old gig: writing. I honed my skills as a reporter and scribe for four expensive years of education at the University of Illinois (including two years covering the Illinois basketball team) then two more years in the real word, first as a recruiting blogger at IlliniHQ and sports editor at the Paxton Record and then as the Northern Illinois beat reporter at the DeKalb (Ill.) Daily Chronicle.

Someday I might get back into writing, I’m not sure. But I’m afraid of the “if you don’t use, you lose it” belief. Hence, this blog. I hope to use this as my own personal tablet to keep my writing skills sharp, but I also hope it’s a place I can inform and entertain. I hope to share insight into Illinois athletics, provide my personal opinions on hot topics in sports and maybe attempt some humor with some goofy posts (let me know if I should stay away from this).

I don’t have delusions of this becoming your one-stop shop for sports information, but I hope this blog serves as just another one of your trusted resources in your endless supply of Internet information.

Categories: Uncategorized