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Illini at the Fight Hunger Bowl: Day 1

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Interim HC Vic Koenning Press Conference
Jerry Rice & Ronnie Lott Press Conference
Day 1 Photo Gallery


The Illini had a full schedule on their first day in San Francisco with a morning practice, a press conference at AT&T Park in the afternoon and a sightseeing trip to Alcatraz Island, home to the infamous former federal prison. It was a great way to kick off the team's stay in the City by the Bay leading up to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31.

After receiving an extra day off practice before leaving Champaign, Illinois hadn't practiced since last Wednesday, Dec. 21, a five-day break. It showed early in the morning session but at about the "second quarter" of interim head coach Vic Koenning's practice schedule, the team's focus snapped in and the Illini finished the two-hour session well.

Illinois is practicing at Laney College in Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge from the team hotel in San Francisco. But Laney is finishing construction on a new locker room complex, so the Illini have to make an adjustment and use a banquet room at the hotel as a locker room, equipment room and training room. After practice, all the players dropped off their helmets, shoulder pads and cleats in the back of the equipment semi-trailer to be transported back to the hotel.

Following practice, the team returned to the hotel (as did the sports information staff and photographer Mark Jones after a quick side trip to In-N-Out Burger, though), but Koenning, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, receiver A.J. Jenkins and defensive end Whitney Mercilus hopped in a couple minivans for the short ride to AT&T Park for a press conference.

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As we were walking in, one of us told the players that San Francisco 49er legends Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott were going to be there, and they could hardly contain themselves. It was really cool to see them chatting with guys that they clearly looked up to as pillars of professional football. Rice and Lott were there to support Kraft's Feeding America initiative, of which the Fight Hunger Bowl is a part.

Once the press conference finished, each of the coaches and players sat at round tables for one-on-one interviews with the media in attendance. Considering there was an Illini basketball game tonight, we thought our assembled crew of the News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen, the Chicago Tribune's Shannon Ryan, the Chicago Sun-Times' Herb Gould and WCIA-3 TV's Aaron Bennett was a strong showing. More of our press corps is on the way in the coming days.

Alcatraz-island.jpgAfter the press conference, we hustled back to the hotel in order to make a quick wardrobe change and hop on the buses to head to the pier in order to board the ferry to Alcatraz Island. In a somewhat rare occurrence in bowl activities, both the Illinois and UCLA groups were on the same ferry and went through the tour of the prison at the same time. There was some good-natured joking among the players, but you can see that these two groups are going to let their play speak for itself.

I think it's safe to say that the trip to Alcatraz Island is one of the coolest bowl activities out there, including the Rose Bowl teams' trips to Disneyland. Having been a part of the Disneyland adventure in 2007, this tour ranks right up there with it. We got to see a beautiful orange and blue sunset as we crossed the bay to the island, then we split up into a few groups where tour guides gave us some interesting info before leading us into the prison staging area where we picked up our listening tour devices and got going.

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Each person was outfitted with a handheld radio-like device that was loaded with an audio tour and headphones. The audio tour directed us through the different parts of the prison and gave a great history of Alcatraz, using bits of interviews with former prison guards and prisoners. There were photos of notorious former prisoners like Al Capone and photo panels describing some of the great escape attempts.

Most of the group headed back to the hotel after that, but a number of coaches and staff stayed on Fisherman's Wharf for dinner. There are so many different restaurants just on the Wharf that I'm pretty sure I could eat at a different seafood place for lunch and dinner each day we're here, and that's without even mentioning the other great eateries in San Francisco.

Be sure to check back for Illini Productions' great feature of the Alcatraz trip, including a welcome by a certain offensive lineman who shall remain nameless. Tomorrow's schedule is a bit lighter, with only a morning practice before a free afternoon where I can try to figure out the many public transportation options in this city and be a tourist for a few hours. But we'll have all the coverage here tomorrow.

Go Illini!


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