Joe Gilbert has a lot on his plate. Besides being offensive line coach, his other titles include Assistant Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. Some past coordinators have used the job to guarantee signing their own prospects, while others have made sure needs are filled regardless of who recruits the players. Gilbert falls into the latter category.
"Obviously, our goal is to put together the best recruiting class that we as a staff can do. Try to get the best group of student-athletes interested in the University of Illinois, recruit them, get them here on campus. I truly believe if we get a chance to get them on campus, we've got a good shot to get them. Put together the best academic and the best football group that we can find."
A recent change finds each assistant coach responsible not only for players in his assigned areas but also players at his positions of responsibility regardless of location. This method helps guarantee each position of need will be filled while eliminating preferential decisions.
"I think the biggest thing is, and Coach (Ron) Zook is a believer in this, is to be sure we recruit our position. Each position coach is responsible, number one, to be sure he has the guys he needs to be successful at his position. With that being said, I think the big thing that is great about this staff is that nobody is trying to push a player just to get a guy signed."
A number of assistants on each college staff hope to become coordinators or head coaches in their futures. A sparkling recruiting resume aids the cause, but Illinois assistants care more about winning than personal recruiting recognition.
"Coach knows if you're working at recruiting. I think we've got a great recruiting staff right now. Guys are working at it. Some guy might not sign a guy, another guy might sign two guys. It doesn't matter. The bottom line is we get the guys here that we can win with."
One of the toughest parts of recruiting is determining which players have the combination of talent, academics, eagerness to sign and ability to fill a need. And then, if two or more players fit that description equally, choosing who gets one available scholarship. The Illini are reliant upon their evaluation process to obtain the best players possible.
"That kind of goes with the position coach plus you as the coordinator. It's like Paul (Petrino) with the receivers. The bottom line is he's gonna coach them. We ask if he is good with the guys he's offered. If he is, it's up to him. It's the same thing with offensive linemen.
"There are a lot of times when guys are very even. Then it comes down to who wants to come first because you're splitting hairs. If you could see the future and see how that kid was gonna pan out (it would be different). It's hard to do, so you go off your evaluation.
"The one thing we've done well is, we're gonna recruit guys that we've evaluated academically, that we've evaluated on film who fit our system. We're gonna take them regardless of who's recruiting them. We're gonna take him if we believe he's a good football player."
Speed and athleticism are essential criteria when evaluating players. In the early years of the Ron Zook era, Illinois took chances on occasion with athletic players who were either lacking fundamentals at their position or were borderline academically or behaviorally in order to compete in the Big 10. While there is more emphasis now on finding true football players who fit all criteria, athleticism is still important.
"At certain positions you're always looking for speed. On the offensive line, we're looking for guys who are athletic and can move. Obviously we want good size, but I think we look for speed at every position because the game is there.
"The big thing we're doing is we're looking for football players on the field and not worry about who's recruiting them, what their rankings are. Do we like them? If the University of Illinois feels that he can play and help us win a Big 10 Championship, we'll recruit him. I think we've done a good job of evaluating them. I think it boils down to that."
The Illini pay no attention to recruiting evaluations from outside websites. They care more about finding players who can win for them regardless of national rankings.
"When you look back, there's four and five-star guys that don't pan out. You're taking a 17 year old kid, and you're betting he will do everything in the weight room and on the football field to become the way you've evaluated him. I think every kid is a gamble."
There is a tendency in some circles to string players along during the recruiting process in the hope something better comes along. Illinois is willing to make a quick decision on a player, even if he comes from a small school, if he fits their criteria.
"Absolutely. When you offer a kid a scholarship, that kid might have some academic issues. That's on him. You may have to change the game a little bit. But if the guy is academically sound, he's athletically sound, and he has the stamp of approval on him, you've got to go with it."
Academic requirements at Illinois are more strict than at some schools. It influences the recruiting process.
"I think the University has put a major push on and wants these guys to be in a certain area academically, and we've got to make sure that they're there. We've kind of gauged that this guy is a little farther away. We might need to push him to January (for a visit) because he might not make it.
"A little bit of it comes down to how good he is and how he fits on the board. If he's a great player and has a ways to go but you feel the school and he can get to that academic level we need, then you take a chance with him.
"If you look at a kid and get to know him, and you go back in and the coach says, 'He's not following up on what he's supposed to do,' then you have to (go a different direction). You have to get a feel for a kid and how important it is to him. Then you get a gut feeling and make a judgment on when you bring him in, if you don't bring him in, all that."
While the UI isn't as strict as private schools like Northwestern, it maintains academic standards higher than several other Big 10 schools. Doesn't that create a competitive disadvantage?
"You're here so you deal with it. It doesn't get you frustrated. In the long run, when you get a kid that meets the academic standards that this university is asking for, you have less headaches with the kid when he gets here. A great selling point is how strong we are academically. You've got to recruit kids who can graduate in 4-5 years."
Gilbert says earning a bowl game invitation this year has aided the Illini recruiting effort. It helps for the February, 2011, signing period, and it helps even more for next year.
"Absolutely. Obviously the season we've had, the close games. Everybody saw the Michigan game, even though we lost, it was a great game. As a coach, you always say you wish you had 2-3 more wins or 6 more wins, but the season the way we competed this year, the wins we have and then getting the bowl game gives us great exposure and has helped us."
Of course, the bowl game also limits the amount of time Illini coaches can spend recruiting. They must be around for practice and game preparation as well. Putting it all together requires tremendous teamwork and organizational skill. Assistant recruiting coordinator Elizabeth Gehrt and graduate assistant Alyssa Sandoval provide a great service for the coaches the whole year, and especially at this time.
"Alyssa and Elizabeth do a good job helping me out with the organization stuff. After lunch you get an hour and fifteen minutes, so I'm not going anywhere. If I'm not doing football, I put together who's going out, where we're going, who needs to be seen to be sure we don't miss anybody. I give that to Coach Zook, and we go through it. The biggest thing is making sure we cover everybody that we need to see.
"So I've got to touch base with every coach. I've got to get a feel from them on who needs to get covered, and then I've got to put it together and make the whole thing work."
Negative recruiters from competing colleges had a field day early this year, working overtime to scare recruits into believing Zook and his staff would be fired after the 2010 season. Gilbert and the other coaches have had to put out many fires, and they were aided by the big improvement shown on the field. Gilbert doesn't believe in negative recruiting.
"People can say what they want. We have a great athletic director, Coach is gonna be here. People can say that, but I don't believe in that. I think when people start saying those things about us or about Coach, I think it sends up a red flag about that university and that person in their program."
Illinois has normally held its annual football banquet in mid December, and it is considered a positive selling point for official visitors. Since the banquet was moved to late January, is it true the big recruiting push will come on that date?
"Coach just wanted to change it up. We felt since the season got done so late, it was better to have it in January. That's really what it was. It wasn't anything to do with recruiting. It was used (as a recruiting tool), and we were gonna push a lot of guys who were committed to January. And we have a bunch coming in at that point who will be here at the banquet."
Gilbert added Recruiting Coordinator to his other responsibilities when Greg Nord left to coach Kentucky this summer. It is a learning process for him, but he has a healthy attitude about the job and how to make it better.
"I don't have all the answers, I don't think anybody does. I think the biggest thing is I'm open to ideas. Everybody has different experiences from different schools. Everybody might say, 'We did it this way.' Let's put it all together and find the best way.
"As I said to the guys when I got it, what we did in the past isn't necessarily the best or necessarily the worst. If somebody has a better idea or better way to do something, voice your opinion. I think that's what we've done."
Gilbert receives plenty of assistance and has a system already established to help him. But his second year on the job should be easier than the first.
"Obviously there's a lot already in place. You tweak it a little bit, but the organization part was already there. It's more managing it. Tweak it to make it better. That's what I think my job is, to give Coach suggestions to make it better."
Fans speculate about recruiting without having a great deal of reliable information to base their opinions. Gilbert was asked if he had any message for Illini fans related to recruiting. His response is colored by some ugly incidents at home games in 2009 when fans did great harm to the Illini's ability to recruit.
"I think the big thing is on game day when we have recruits here. When other schools make a big deal about the guys who are here. I had an experience last year when we were recruiting kids here, the fans weren't all that supportive.
"It's their school. They should want to get the best players here to help them have a great team on the field. And not sit there and make derogatory comments. I think that's part of educating them to realize, 'Come to our place. Come here and help us win a Big 10 Championship.' That's one thing I'd like to see the fans be more into and be more cognizant of than more on the derogatory side."
Gilbert doesn't concern himself with things he can't control. For a recruiting coordinator, the elephant in the closet is all the recruiting sites on the Internet.
"The internet has so much information on it. It's not always accurate. It is what it is."