Mike Gilhamer is well known in coaching circles as a quality defensive backfield coach. His illustrious career includes stints with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers in the National Football League and several college stops.
His hiring allows defensive coordinator and former linebacker Vic Koenning to coach linebackers rather than the secondary. Gillhamer is excited to be back in the college game at Illinois.
"I think it was a great opportunity. My wife's from St. Louis, and her parents are getting older. I think she's still on me for not being here the first time. This worked out pretty good for us."
The "first time" was when he was named a coach for Ron Turner's first Illini team in 1997. As he explains, he wasn't here long.
"I was here for just a little bit, about a day or two. It's amazing isn't it? You never know with the decisions you make whether they're positive or negative. Once you make them, you've got to go with them. I ended up with the Giants."
Gillhamer has a close connection with the Petrino family, and that helped open the door for an interview with Coach Ron Zook at Illinois.
"I've known of Ron Zook, but I've not personally known him. I worked with Paul Petrino at Louisville, and then I was with his brother (Bobby) at three other college stops. So I kind of knew the Petrino family. He called me one night and said, 'Would you be interested?' It went from there."
Gillhamer actually started his college career playing for Carroll College and heralded coach Bob Petrino, Paul and Bobby's father.
"I played for Coach Petrino my freshman year. He was a great man; it was good. I thought I was too good. It was a smaller college, and I was going to go to JC and make it to the big-time. Obviously, that didn't work.
"When I was at Louisville, Mr. Petrino would come around all the time. Every Friday morning when he was around, I would put him in our room, just him and I, and I would go over the game plan. I really used him when I was there. I thought it was awesome."
Working in the NFL was an excellent experience, but Gillhamer doesn't feel he will have adjustment problems back in the college game.
"The NFL is football 24/7. You're around it all the time. Wherever you go, you get to work with great people. There's always someone you're gonna learn from. How to do things, how not to do things. So it was a great experience going through that.
"When I was in the NFL, I was probably accused more of being a college coach. I ran around, I was active, I believe in coaching technique. There really was no difference. I still ran back and forth to the huddle until Coach (John) Fox asked me to get off the field. And then I was like a nervous cat. So I took the same approach, and I'll probably take the same approach coming here.
"The best part of college coaching is you're trying to mold them into better people and help them succeed. If you make them better, and they know you can make them better, they're gonna listen to you."
Of course, there are some complications in the college game not prevalent with the pros.
"The only difference is, now you're concerned what they do off the field. In college, I had to know where they were at 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm, going to class. Before, Charles Godfrey went home at 4:00 pm, and I didn't see him again until 7 in the morning. I didn't worry about anything."
The other main complication is actually a positive for Gillhamer...recruiting. That aspect of the job hasn't been on his plate since 2003. But he appears to relish the opportunity.
"Everybody says, 'You're going back to college. What are you gonna do about recruiting?' There's plusses and minuses. You won't just be in a room for 12 hours a day. You'll be out in a car and meet young people, visit some neat schools and do some things.
"I enjoyed recruiting. Recruiting is like anything else. You get what you put into it. It's like a game, and you want to win the game. So you've got to be aggressive and work at it.
"It helps when you've got that "I" on your chest; you're representing a real good school. That gets you in with the top players to begin with. That really helps."
He doesn't know to what recruiting areas he will be assigned, but he has experience all over the country.
"They've not mentioned that to me. I'm looking forward to seeing where I end up. I've recruited mainly in California, Southern California and Northern California, Oregon. Obviously, as a secondary coach I went all over to see the dbs.
"State of Utah, state of Nevada. When I was at Rutgers, Bergen and Hudson counties in New Jersey, which are really fruitful areas. And then when I was in Louisville, I had central Florida. So I've kind of been on both coasts."
Is he accustomed to coaching the defensive schemes Koenning brought to Illinois last year?
"No, but when I was here for my interview, I was very fortunate to be able to meet with Vic for about an hour when I first got here. It's a lot of similar stuff.
"It's like anywhere you go, it's just a different language. You've just got to pick up what they do. I think they have a great package here. I've just got to learn the new terms. It's just different ways of doing things."
Gillhamer will be one of three coaches on staff who have coached defensive backs, but he sees that as a positive.
"Vic has been great, and then Coach Zook was a defensive backfield coach. I worked for Coach Fox, who was a defensive backfield coach. We talked about that. It's great to have another guy to talk about things. If you believe in something, that's what you teach. If there's a difference of opinions, you work it out. I think it's kind of positive.
"I've been real impressed with the staff and real impressed with Coach Zook. It's my job to fit in with them and make sure I can be helpful to them. I didn't come here to reinvent the wheel. I just came to help us be better."
Gillhamer has some catching up to do with personnel prior to the beginning of spring practice in late March. Every secondary member gets a fresh opportunity to impress his coach.
"I don't know a whole bunch. I got to meet with Vic for a little bit, and he filled me in. I've got all their names. But what I'm gonna do is begin looking at film tomorrow morning. I'm gonna make my opinions, and I know who to look for.
"I'll see things they need help with or things I can do to help and start molding it together. I really believe in studying film, watching what they're doing. I'll get my own opinions, and I'll rely on the coaches that have been here also."
The personable Gillhamer seems secure in his football knowledge and comfortable with his new home. Change seems easy for him, and he has no regrets.
"It was a blessing to come back to this area. I had no problem whatever was to happen. I didn't leave college to go to the NFL because I didn't like college, and I didn't leave the NFL wanting to get back to college necessarily. It's just coaching, and this is a pretty high level of coaching."