Koenning to lead Illinois in bowl game
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois interim head coach Vic Koenning is tasked with getting a downtrodden team prepared for a likely bowl game.
"We have a lot of work to do healing," Koenning said.
Ron Zook was fired on Sunday after the Illini collapsed following a 6-0 start, culminating in Saturday's 27-7 loss to Minnesota.
Koenning is in his second season as the team's defensive coordinator, and he previously was the Wyoming head coach from 2000-02.
"We have a good staff, an experienced staff, which will make things a lot easier," Koenning said. "There's a lot that coach Zook had done, and that slack's going to have to be picked up, and I'm sure a lot of that is going to fall on me."
Koenning met with players on Sunday and he stressed academic improvement and team unity. The team will take the week off before resuming practices on Monday.
"I want a commitment from them that that's something that they want to do because nobody wants to go through what we went through Saturday night," Koenning said.
The team's promising start had players and fans anticipating a big-name bowl, but the team's slide in the last half of the season has the team unsure of its postseason fate. The Big Ten has 10 bowl-eligible teams with eight bowl tie-ins. If the conference sends two teams to BCS bowls, Illinois may be the Big Ten team left out, meaning it would have to wait for an at-large invitation.
"Beggars can't be choosers, and we put ourselves in the begging business," Koenning said.
Koenning said that he doesn't expect the team to turn down a bowl invitation, which would be the first time Illinois has gone to back-to-back bowls since 1991 and '92.
"Bowl games are supposed to celebrate the season," wide receiver A.J. Jenkins said. "We put our blood, sweat and tears out on the field, so we should go to a bowl to celebrate."
Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said a national search for a successor will begin immediately.
"Time heals all wounds," defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "It's going to take a little bit of time to get over all this. Right now, we're going to take things a little bit at a time, day by day, and then things will get better."
A bowl win, of course, would help speed along the healing process.
"We have to find a way to get rid of this negativity and feel better about things," Koenning said. "One way to do that is to win."
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