Growing up as a White Sox fan in Downers Grove, Martin O’Donnell loved listening to “Hawk” Harrelson call games on TV. Like most Sox fans, O’Donnell enjoyed Harrelson’s homerish style.
As the radio analyst for Illini football, O’Donnell doesn’t try to emulate Harrelson. But perhaps Hawk’s influence is deep in O’Donnell’s subconscious because he’s unabashed about his allegiance.
“I’m not naive enough to say that I want Illinois football to be successful more than the coaching staff and the players,” O’Donnell said. “But I think I’m next in line after the families.”
O’Donnell will begin his seventh season alongside play-by-play voice Brian Barnhart on Saturday, when the Illini host Nebraska in the first game of the college football season (12:20 p.m., Fox-32, 890-AM). O’Donnell was the starting left guard for the Illini in 2007, when they beat No. 1 Ohio State, went to the Rose Bowl (lost to USC) and finished 9-4.
O’Donnell, 36, lives with his wife and three kids just outside of Champaign in Savoy, and he said there’s a buzz around town with coach Bret Bielema taking the reins and a national spotlight on the university.
“The Illinois fan base has really been reinvigorated with the hiring of Bret Bielema,” O’Donnell said. “He’s done everything right. Hired a fantastic staff. They’ve had success on the recruiting trail. I’m expecting a good crowd here Saturday. Now, you gotta perform on the field.”
That has been a problem for the Illini, who have finished above .500 seven times in the last 30 seasons, the most recent in 2011. O’Donnell thinks a plan is in place to at least give the program more consistent success.
“What Illinois football needs to do is to form an identity and be consistent with it,” he said. “When you decide what our identity is gonna be as a football program, it allows you to instill that identity within the players that are on your roster, and when you’re able to identify what your plan is for every position that you’re trying to recruit, you can exploit inefficiencies within the recruiting marketplace.”
O’Donnell said Bielema is the right man for the job, given his success at Wisconsin (68-24 from 2006 to ’12) and his Illinois and Big Ten roots. Bielema grew up in Prophetstown and played at Iowa. The Illini are banking on that familiarity with the terrain paying off on the recruiting trail.
“Chicago is a challenging recruiting environment, you have all these competing priorities,” O’Donnell said. “But outside of the Chicagoland area, especially south of I-80, you can’t lose those recruiting battles. Those are communities that are very pro-Illini, and what was troubling for me over the past five, 10 years is you got kids from Springfield going to the SEC.
“I think Bret and his staff have done a really nice job, and I know they’ll be consistent because he’s got a plan and they’re being methodical.”
O’Donnell’s outgoing nature and success with the Illini paved his way to the radio booth. He was a four-year starter and earned first-team All-America honors as a senior in 2007. That made him a popular interview request and put him among the team representatives at Big Ten media days.
He didn’t enter the NFL Draft because injuries had taken their toll. While figuring out what to do next, O’Donnell was approached by longtime Illini show host Steve Kelly, who asked if he would be interested in co-hosting a postgame call-in show.
A regular listener of The Score back home, O’Donnell was interested in sports radio. The call-in show amounted to his only training for the analyst job, though he filled in for former analyst and Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner on one game and enjoyed it.
When Kittner decided to step away before the 2015 season, O’Donnell expressed his interest in taking over.
“I’m sure they talked to a variety of people,” he said. “But I was able to bamboozle them into giving it to me.”
O’Donnell put a lot of effort into film study as a player, and he continues to in preparation for games. He strives to be concise and impactful with his words, skills he learned on the call-in show. He has a great rapport with Barnhart and wears his emotions on his sleeve, making for an entertaining broadcast.
Still, he sometimes marvels at others, such as Bears radio analyst Tom Thayer.
“He does an unbelievable job. He and [play-by-play voice] Jeff Joniak are the best in the business,” O’Donnell said. “I always try to listen to the Bears games as much as I can. If you just listen to the amount of information and analysis that Tom Thayer can get into like 15 seconds, it’s great.”
O’Donnell is plenty busy off the air. He’s an executive vice president at Busey Bank, a board member for the United Way of Champaign, a part of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation and a committee member at Carle Foundation Hospital.
“I’m lucky. My wife [Emily] is nice enough to indulge me in this little side gig,” O’Donnell said. “Obviously, I’ve been on a quest to be the No. 1 Illinois homer in the world.”