No tears flowed at Friday's players-only meeting -- "We're grown men," senior defensive back V'Angelo Bentley said -- but most Illinois players still sat, stunned, in silence.
Losing their head coach a week before the season? Seeing their program's name splattered across front pages everywhere? This wasn't what they expected. It's not what they signed up for.
But they knew there was no going back. So the seniors stood up in that meeting room Friday, faced their teammates and said there's nothing they can do but move on. And in that brief 15 minutes, players said, that’s exactly what they did -- move on.
"Coaches can't play the game for us," Bentley told ESPN.com. "We still have to go out there, and we still have to represent our families, our school, our student body, our mom, our dad, the name on the front and back of our jersey.
“So I wouldn’t say it’s moving on in a bad way. It’s more so that we can’t dwell on this. We have to keep going.”
Players took turns speaking during the meeting. Some asked questions -- like one freshman who wanted to know whether this would impact a redshirt. (Those standing in the front of the room told him to keep working hard.) But most just reiterated the theme professed by the seniors: Coach Tim Beckman’s firing is in the past; don’t let it define this season.
“We have no choice. The season’s here; we can’t dwell on the past,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “It was a huge strike against us with adversity, but that’s OK. That’s life. Life’s not fair, and I think we came to understand that. We’re all going through it together and are just really focused on football.”
The goal still remains the same for these Illini: make it to a bowl game. The game plan and the philosophy also remain identical. It’s only the circumstances that have changed, they said.
Instead of Beckman sprinting down the sideline at practice Monday, blowing his whistle and energizing the players, interim coach Bill Cubit roamed the field. He eschewed his normal offensive routine and spent time with the defense. Instead of Beckman trotting out to the weekly news conference in his usual windbreaker, Cubit took the podium with a sports jacket -- “I thought I look pretty good in this, don’t I?” he said -- and addressed the change and the support head-on.
“I think everybody is rallying, I really do,” Cubit said. “My hope is that the students, the alumni, the parents, everybody out there will rally around this football team because these kids deserve all the support they can get. ... Everyone has to pitch in.”
If these players are bitter, they’re not showing it. There’s no time to be bitter, after all. The season opener against Kent State is 9 p.m. ET Friday, and the Fighting Illini don’t have the luxury of taking anyone for granted.
So that, Lunt and Bentley said, is what they’ve been focusing on this week -- the game against the Golden Flashes. Starting 1-0. Everything else?
“We had some adversity last week, but we’re over it,” Lunt said. “I keep saying that’s what Coach Beckman would want. We’re focused on Kent State.”
Added Bentley: “Illinois will move forward. ... This has brought us closer, and the greatest teams are the ones that are most together.”