Illinois will look first within its home state for talented football players. Coach Tim Beckman and staff have encircled a 5-6 hour radius of locales they consider home territory, and they will branch out from there as needed. Some Illini assistants are already familiar with Chicago. The key now is to canvass the entire state according to Alex Golesh, who came from Toledo with Beckman to be tight end coach and recruiting coordinator.
"We covered Chicago at the previous place, but now we are covering the whole state. We are saying St. Louis is part of the state, and Indianapolis is part of the state. But priority number one is this state."
The new Illini coaches may prove lucky in their first full recruiting season since there are more decent downstate players for 2013 than some years. They are often the ones with more loyalty to the state school.
"Yeah, there definitely are. The kids that grew up Illinois fans, we're trying to make sure we keep them here. Those that didn't, we're trying to make them Illinois fans. This is the state university of Illinois. Everybody says it, but we mean that. If there's a kid in the state of Illinois that's got a shot, we're going to make sure we're all over him."
Illini coaches are amazingly confident coming to the Big 10, where Ohio State and Michigan have dominated Midwest recruiting for many years, and schools like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa aren't far behind. They haven't recruited directly against these teams in the past, but they have a plan they believe will work.
"I think what we've tried to figure out is, what do we have to sell? It's the program, the academics, the tradition. I think a lot of people forget the tradition this place has. Five national titles, 15 Big Ten titles. If you look it up, we're third in national titles and third in the Big Ten in Big Ten titles. You probably know who one and two are.
"The question is, how do you beat one and two? You beat them on the field, that helps. And you sell what we have. Coach Beckman and I will put our staff up against the best in the country. It's been publicized that we have the best recruiting staff. We've got unbelievable people, and you sell people.
"Offensively, what Coach (Billy) Gonzales and Coach (Chris) Beatty bring to the table is unbelievable. Coach (Luke) Butkus has been in the NFL for five years, and he truly loves this place. We're young, we're energetic.
"Defensively, Coach (Tim) Banks is coming from a Big East championship. He has multiple, multiple MAC championships. Coach (Mike) Ward has been involved in a lot of championships in the Mid-American. Coach Clink (Steve Clinkscale) has been around winning football for a long time. Coach (Keith) Gilmore, look what he's done with his defensive line.
"I think when kids get around us, they're energized. And that's what you sell. This administration is unbelievable. Mike Thomas comes from winning, that's all he's done. You sell those things. You sell the facilities; that weight room is as good as there is in the nation. You sell that, and ultimately you have to win on the field.
"That will help us beat the Ohio States and Michigans of the world. Will you get everyone? No. But the plan is to get the kids in the state to stay in the state. We're not expecting to go to Ohio and beat Ohio State for a kid, but we're also not expecting for Ohio State to come to Illinois and beat Illinois on a kid.
"Our job is to get the kids down here, the coaches down here, so they can see what we're all about. Our track record at Toledo and at Oklahoma State, and back to when Coach Beck and I were at Ohio State, has been that we take care of our kids. We demand greatness from our kids; we're going to push our kids to be great students and great athletes.
"A lot of programs sell that, but not a lot of programs can show that. We have to show it, and those high school coaches have to get around us. These guys are actual people. There's no egos."
What will it take to get the ball rolling?
"We need some kids to jump in the boat and say, 'I'm going to be a Fighting Illini.' Help us in that way. And I think they will. With social media, these kids now know each other way better than they ever did. Everything has to be on the up and up. Those kids have to see what we're all about."
The Illini hosted around 130 prep athletes last Sunday for a Junior Day, their second one since National Signing Day February 1. They will have another one March 10.
"These Junior Days are great; they come down on the weekends. We show them why they should be here."
Continuing with his recruiting pitch, Golesh brags further about the quality of the coaching staff. He expects the talent of the coaches and the closeness of the family unit will be major selling points.
"You look around the Big Ten. Everybody has nice weight rooms, everybody has nice stadiums, everybody has good fan bases. The difference is the people. It's not the cement, it's not the brick, it's the people.
"We're undefeated right now; we haven't lost a single game. Billy Gonzales just played for a national title. Chris Beatty, they won six games at Vanderbilt, and they've been down at Vanderbilt for a very long time.
We (Beckman, Golesh, Ward and Clinkscale) won nine games at Toledo. We lost two games in our conference the last two years, which hasn't been done at Toledo since 2004. We walked into a situation there where they were 3-9 and a lot of problems, and we got it turned around.
"In two years, we were in the ball game. In year three we won nine games. So what we can show is our track record. I'd argue what separates ourselves from any other staff in the conference is our people.
These kids have to believe in what we stand for. Coach Beck talks about family a lot. Everybody talks about family. Spend the day here, and you'll get to see that. Ask our current players. We are getting to know them better, and they're getting to know us better. That's really what it is, it's a lifestyle. Coaching at this level is not a job. It truly is a lifestyle. That's where I think we differentiate from a lot of people."
The Illini had winning records and bowl wins each of the last two seasons. Golesh is convinced the new staff can build on that solid foundation.
"We're not coming into a situation that's broken, a 3-9 program with issues. The academics here are fine, and we want to make them better. The players here are fine, but we want to get better. It's not broken by any means. That's what you're gonna sell. And winning will help us recruit."
In part three, Golesh talks about his other main job, coaching tight ends and overseeing the specialists.