Top college football programs have large staffs of people who do all the on-campus detail work relative to recruiting future prospects. Before this year, Illinois hired one assistant fresh out of college plus a grad assistant to handle all the paperwork and other necessities required to help the recruiting coordinator.
New Illini coach Tim Beckman hired a full time Director of Player Personnel to expand that office. It is a new position, something Paul Nichols likes because he gets to develop it.
"We're getting to create something from the ground up. We are creating our recruiting system. It's not like I'm coming into something that's already been set up. There was nothing set up here. So that's what we're doing."
Since Nichols is an experienced coach, he can provide tremendous assistance to the recruiting coordinator and others on the staff.
"Here's what happens. Every staff in America has a recruiting coordinator. That title has to go to one of the nine coaches. That guy for us is Alex Golesh.
"He's on the road recruiting his area right now, so he doesn't have enough time in his day to recruit his own area, handle his position and then manage everything else. That's my role. I'm managing everybody else, unbiased. I'm evaluating this receiver in his area versus this receiver in that area and a receiver in another area. Now who's the best? Let's go get that guy."
Past Illini recruiting efforts left holes at some positions due to a lack of coordination. Nichols provides a buffer to make sure that problem is no longer a concern. Since he has none of his own recruits to favor, he can be like a referee, making sure position needs are met and no one assistant dominates decision-making with his own recruits.
Nichols sees his job as two-fold.
"Player personnel to me is management not only of recruiting but also of your own personnel. I think the ability to evaluate your own personnel is critical because we need to recruit by position every year. Some years, we won't necessarily fill that position based on our numbers. But the ability to dictate where the other scholarships go is critical.
"For example, I've watched this young freshman on film every day, but he was redshirted and the position coach has never seen him because he was down on the scout team. So how does he know about this development?
"That's my job. I'm watching him every day. I'm coming in here watching film after practice, before practice, during the day and evaluating. How good is he getting? How soon can we expect him to get on the field for us? A year, two years? And then you look at your depth charts and see what we have coming back.
"For instance, if you look at our depth on the defensive line, we've got some seniors plus some that are a little bit younger, and then we have some new guys coming in here in the fall. We've got to find out how quickly those guys in the fall are going to help us. That will determine where our numbers are on the defensive line.
"Do we need three defensive ends? Do we need three defensive tackles? What are our needs? So the ability to understand that will dictate and determine the numbers that we go recruit.
"Recruiting is fluid, a little bit, in terms of having a set number of scholarships. So the question is, how are those scholarships going to be allotted? That's what I see my role as primarily.
"Secondary is the setup of our recruiting plan. Where are we going, who are we going to see, how are we going to get there, those sorts of things."
In the past, if enough viable candidates for scholarships at each position of need weren't identified early, the Illini sometimes found themselves without quality backups if their first choices committed to other schools. It is Nichols's job to prevent that calamitous result. He provides a hypothetical example.
"I'm looking at our recruiting board, and I see we've offered eight defensive tackles, and we've only offered two defensive ends. That's a problem. I call every coach and say, 'Find defensive ends immediately. I don't care where they are, go get them because we've got to find more guys.' If we want to sign three and only have two offered, that a problem.
"That isn't a problem now because most guys haven't committed. But come September, we'll have a real good idea what's going on. Can we actually recruit them? Are they committed? What are their grades like?"
Grades is always a big issue. Prospects fall by the wayside if Illinois can't accept them into school.
"In June, it's going to be critical for us to see their sixth semester transcripts. Look at the grades and say, 'Listen, this guy is a 2.0. We can't recruit this guy.' Guess what, you've just taken him off the board. Well, who's replacing that? We've got to have another guy ready to go. That's the analysis that has to be done, and it's got to be done every day."
This issue is so important that Nichols and Beckman meet frequently to analyze their recruiting situation so they can respond at a moment's notice to problems that arise.
"Coach Beckman and I were here about 6:30 (last Thursday) morning talking about that very thing. He said, 'Hey, I'm concerned about this position, this position, this position. We don't have enough guys to recruit.
"So that's what I'm doing, telling guys to go find these positions. I'm all over the place because we can't cover the whole country with nine guys on the road (seven at a time). So I've got to pick up the slack elsewhere."
While he can't go on the road to recruit, Nichols will dip into his own recruiting contacts seeking help.
"I've got connections in the places I've recruited before. And if I have recruited there, I'll call them up and check it out. That's kind of what we're doing."
Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert coordinated recruiting the past couple years. He simply couldn't do everything needed while also coaching his players and recruiting his territories.
"The expectation that one guy is gonna handle it all, it's impossible. And I'll tell you another thing. It's always good to have somebody in this role that has an extensive coaching background. Because you get it. You've been on the road, and you know what it's like out there."
Nichols can empathize with Illini assistants. He is better equipped to assist them due to his own background. He understands what they are going through.
"I'm trying to get to ten schools today, go watch track practice, go watch a baseball game. By the time I get home and do all my paperwork and make phone calls, it's 10 o'clock at night. I do not have time to do all that and have time for my family. It's impossible. So we need to have somebody to handle all that stuff, and that's what I do."
Details pile up for a football coaching staff. There are tons of letters, emails, texts and phone calls to deal with. Hundreds of film highlights must be evaluated. Summer camps must be arranged and publicized, again for evaluation purposes. And decisions must be made regarding whom to recruit. Nichols discusses these aspects in part three of this interview.