Jun 03, 2023

Tickets, travel, Marching Illini: Logistics churn for Tampa

Members of the Marching Illini perform a halftime show with the Michigan Marching Band at Michigan Stadium. Later this month, they'll hit the road again — this time to the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

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CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois football team won't fly to Tampa, Fla., for another three weeks, but the contents of their goody bags can already be revealed.

Each player will receive a ReliaQuest Bowl watch, a ring with their name and school imprinted on it, a hat and a $150 Amazon gift card courtesy of the bowl itself, said Mike Schulze, director of communications and sponsorships for the Tampa Bay Bowl Association.

As Illinois preps to face No. 22 Mississippi State on Jan. 2 in its first bowl game in Florida since 1999, the logistics machine is already churning. First order of business: There are 8,500 tickets for sale through the UI's ticket office. Officials are confident those will sell, as Tampa is a common holiday destination, easily accessed through several airports.

Pent-up fan excitement may factor in, too. It's only the fourth bowl appearance by the Illini since 2011.

"Well, it's been a few years, right?" UI athletics spokseman Kent Brown said. "We feel like we’re certainly going to be able to sell our allotment, and I’m sure there’ll be others who get tickets other ways as well."

The ticket office will take requests from fans until 4 p.m. Thursday. As long as that deadline's met, the timing of requests won't affect the location of the seats, ticket director Jason Heggemeyer said Monday on WDWS’ "Penny for Your Thoughts."

Instead, his office will take a look at everyone who ordered tickets and rank them by their I-Fund contributions and "priority points" to help assign seats. Ticket orders should be confirmed by the end of the weekend, he said.

"We want you in Florida; we want you supporting the Illini," Heggemeyer said. "You’ll be sitting with other fans, and the university has to buy the tickets we are given. By buying directly through us, you’re helping us meet that bill."

Ticket prices range from $90 to $180 in the Illini block, he said. The list of relatives, athletics officials and university administrators who’ll attend the game is still being worked on, Brown said.

"We’re out there right now to number of different constituent groups," Heggemeyer said. "Whether it be band parents, cheer parents, we’re out there reaching out to a lot of those groups right now to figure out how many of those people are traveling down."

The entire Marching Illini band will be attending, director Barry Houser said. The 400-person travel party will be heading to Tampa in a 20-plus-hour trip via charter coach.

"The preparation for this trip is an enormous undertaking," Houser said. "I am planning a trip basically for a small town."

Band members will keep busy from the time they set foot in Florida with daily practices from Dec. 29 through Jan. 1, intertwined with a slate of performances: on the beach, in the Ybor City New Year's Eve Parade and at Busch Gardens.

On game day, the pace only quickens: A pep rally, a seven-minute pregame show, a six-minute halftime show and all the sideline fanfare they’re known for.

The students are "extremely excited" for it.

"The fact we are playing in a Florida bowl is huge," Houser said. "I have been in this bowl as a student. I took my high school band to this event many years ago, and I am excited to return to Florida — a place I spent a number of years as a college student and in the first years of my teaching career."

Like other hosts, the ReliaQuest Bowl will send a payout to participating conferences, typically $6.4 million, according to its website. The Big Ten will send a portion of the money to the UI to cover travel costs, lodging, food, entertainment and other expenses.

"Sometimes you’re able to do it for a little bit less and put some of the money back in the budget," Brown said.

The rest of the cash is pooled with other bowl game revenues and distributed to the 14 schools in the conference. Nine Big Ten schools were selected for bowl games this year.

In their downtime, visitors will have plenty of attractions to keep in mind, said Schulze, who's lived in the Tampa area for more than 30 years.

There's the Busch Gardens and Adventure Island theme parks, Clearwater Beach, The Florida Aquarium, and the Ybor City neighborhood, known for its Latin American and Cuban eateries.

Perhaps some Illini players will be familiar; 18 of them are from Florida, the most in the Big Ten West.

"It's the best bowl trip in the country, hands down," Schulze said. "Every school tells us this."

The fact Bret Bielema has Illinois in a New Year's Day Bowl game in just his second season? Hardly anyone could have seen that coming two years ago

Alex Palczewski spent Sunday afternoon with his nephew. Bowl game intrigue could wait. Mostly because the veteran Illinois offensive lineman knew he was going to cap his career with one of the more notable options.

Illinois (8-4) was linked to the Music City Bowl, Citrus Bowl and ReliaQuest Bowl in the days leading up to Sunday's bowl selections. New Year's Eve in Nashville or Jan. 2 in Florida — the New Year's Day equivalent when the holiday is on a Sunday.

The ReliaQuest Bowl and a matchup with Mississippi State (8-4) was the ultimate landing spot mid-afternoon Sunday.

Better than the Redbox Bowl in 2019. And certainly better than the 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021 seasons that ended without a bowl appearance for Palczewski and still a few of his current Illini teammates.

"Riding over here was a little bit of a throwback," Palczewski said, referencing Illinois' 47-23 loss to South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in 2017. "Only a handful of guys experienced that tough game. It's a moment of appreciation of how much this program has been able to turn around since that point. ... It's kind of been weird over the last couple weeks. Sitting at Northwestern, four of my last six years, I was done after this.

"You get to be around all the guys another month. I don't have to close the books on some of these relationships. There's guys I played with in '19 I'm not as close to as I wish I was. It's being able to appreciate this next month. It's a gift, a present. It's something we've been able to work for over the last couple months. We get to finally reap the rewards, enjoy a nice week in Tampa and play a good team in Mississippi State."

Illinois enters bowl season having won eight games for the first time in 15 years. It's also the program's first New Year's Day bowl in the same amount of time. But that didn't stop Illini coach Bret Bielema from being a bit frustrated the last week of what could have been.

Will Willard Airport have flights to potential Illini bowl game locations?

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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