Jerrance Howard has enjoyed a mercurial rise as an assistant basketball coach at Illinois. Hired without any previous experience as an assistant, Howard has quickly made his mark. He is especially well known for his recruiting expertise, having been the primary recruiter for all six entering freshmen.
Speaking recently on WDWS radio, Howard says his job requires his attention every day of the year, but there is no doubt he has found his correct profession.
"There's never a quiet period at this level. It's not as intense as it is during the season, but with developing the players and getting the new guys ready, and recruiting never stops, there's really never a slow time. But I love it. It doesn't really feel like work. I enjoy my work."
Freshmen Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mycheal Henry, Devin Langford, Mike Shaw and Ibrahima Djimde, plus senior transfer Sam Maniscalco, expect to enroll for classes the second week in June. Details must be ironed out. But it is worth the effort as Howard is pleased with the extra large class.
"I think it's a real balanced class. We're real excited about this group and the makeup they bring."
The last to hop on board is Djimde. The Illini want all newcomers to travel to Italy with the team in August, but they must be enrolled for summer school to be eligible for the trip. Getting transcripts from his early high school years in his native Mali is just one of several complications, and time is short.
"We're still waiting on some different things to get done. Obviously, this is the first time having a guy like Ibby on our team, born in Africa. Ibby is a unique situation, coming to a prep school from his home town. There's a lot of things the University, myself and the staff have never dealt with before. It's been very detailed learning experience along the way."
Howard leaves no doubt the recruitment of Djimde is worth the effort.
"He's the hardest working player I've recruited since Patrick Patterson when I was at Kentucky. He has a motor that never stops. He has a God's gift body, a legit 6'-9" and 240. He's a guy that can be productive without ever scoring a basket.
"I kid you not, there were 9 Division I players that played the day I saw him play. He jumped out at me right away. He's what we need and what we're looking for, a guy with a big body who has a motor, a high energy guy.
"He's a great kid too. He's worked for everything he's gotten. I think he's really gonna be a good piece for us. We talked as a staff on what we need, and he will fit perfectly into our basketball program."
The Fighting Illini will benefit in multiple ways on their 5 game trip to Italy. Being able to take the newcomers will give them a head start on learning the offense and defense. But Howard says there is an even bigger benefit.
"Teams that go on trips like this often have successful seasons. I was part of one of them. My first year, we took a trip overseas. It's not so much the games and the practices, it's the bonding. Being with each other for 10 days straight, you have no choice but to bond."
The recruiting wizard was asked what kind of pitch he makes with high school players.
"Before I even get to making my pitch, I establish a personal relationship with a kid. Just being myself, going on my research and my background. Knowing what his passion is and going off of that.
"The first conversations, we don't even talk about the University of Illinois. We're talking about what's his hardest class, his homecoming, his football games.
"I think it's important to develop a personal relationship with the people around him. I say I 'box him in.' If he has five people who are important, his grandmother, his high school coach, his girl friend, his best friend and a track coach he looks to as a mentor, I take it personal. I try to develop a personal relationship with all five of those people.
"Now, it means something to him when I call and tell him to visit. When I do make my pitch on campus, especially with an in-state kid, the first thing I ask him is, 'Why not the University of Illinois?' With our alumni base, being a state school, playing in the Big 10 (why not).
"A lot of these kids grew up on watching our '04-'05 Final Four team. Their dads and moms grew up watching the '89 team. So a state kid has a familiarity with the University of Illinois.
"My biggest pitch is Bruce Weber. You're gonna graduate, and you're gonna get better as a person and as a player. The University of Illinois and Bruce Weber speaks for itself. But before you give your pitch and start talking recruiting, you have to develop a personal relationship with the recruit and the people around him."
Former Illini Jereme Richmond hopes to be drafted by the NBA this summer. Howard provided an update.
"He just went through the Combine, and he did really well. I've been talking to a lot of different teams, and the first thing they talked about was his versatility and his toughness. He could go anywhere from late first round to late second round. I think it depends on those first 14-15 picks for where he ends up.
"My thing on Jereme is, I want him to stay and retire from the NBA. I don't think there was ever a question on whether he was gonna get drafted or not. I just want him to get on a good team because his best basketball is ahead of him.
"He's doing really well. He's working on his jump shot and ball handling. I hear a lot of people say he should have come back. I thought the same his family did, that this situation was the best for him. This is a kid that, since his 6th grade year, has wanted to play in the NBA.
"He made the decision, and his family supported it. His mom and dad are on board, so I had no choice but to get on board because I want what's best for the kids."
Howard's empathy for the players includes wanting to see them be drafted by the NBA right out of high school if they are good enough.
"Just being a basketball player, I think you should go from high school to the NBA. That's just my personal opinion. I think if a kid is talented enough, and that's his hopes and dreams on what he wants to do in life, why not? I think you don't stop peoples' dreams and passions just because of their age.
"What you need to do is have these kids who are talented enough can get more help from the NBA along the way and not treat them like a veteran. I know a lot of people don't agree with that, but I just think, if kids are able to go, you shouldn't stop their dreams."
What about Howard's personal dreams? He's had offers to become a recruiting coach at top-notch schools, but he wants more.
"I'm in a great situation. It would be dumb for me not to listen to other programs who have reached out and talked about coming.
"But to me, in a perfect world I would like to be a head coach. Getting away from Jerrance Howard the recruiter for Illinois and being Jerrance Howard the coach. So I'm doing speaking engagements, speaking at coaching clinics and trying to get better off the court. That's what got me into coaching. I want people to know this guy can do more than recruit.
"It's definitely been fun, and I'm in a great situation. My wife's from Chicago, I'm from Peoria. I went here, I bleed Orange and Blue. I'm in a great situation, and I want people to know I will do what's best for me and my family.
"But if it was up to me, I'd love to stay here. Coach Weber has taken care of me really well financially and really supported me. I'm the same kind of person as well, so it would be a great thing for me to ride this thing out, put some banners on the wall as we go and hopefully be a head coach here one day."
Happy Birthday Jerrance!