Illinois doesn't just reach out to football prospects around the state and country for recruiting purposes. It also receives tons of inquiries from prospective student-athletes, their coaches and friends. Illini head coach Tim Beckman and his nine assistants don't always have time to keep up with all the correspondence. That is where Director of Player Personnel Paul Nichols comes in handy.
"Let me give you an example," Nichols explains. "Every day, probably 60 people send an e-mail to Coach Beck. Recruit me. See my film, etc. How many of those guys can actually play at the Division I Big Ten level? Not many.
"But here's the thing. A lot of those are Illinois guys. We want to win Illinois. We're going to win Illinois. Unless you're active in your recruiting, getting those people on campus and giving them a fair evaluation, then what's that high school coach going to think about the University of Illinois?
"What if one of my players sends an e-mail to the head football coach at Illinois wanting an evaluation, and he doesn't hear anything back. I assume they don't care.
"Then all of a sudden I've got a player that's the best player in the state, and they show up and try to recruit our player...you can't do that. You've got to build relationships. If you're going to win this state, you've got to build relationships. And that's what we're going to do."
It is a daunting task, one that has been only partially successful with previous coaching regimes at Illinois. But with people like Nichols assisting the Illini coaching staff, much more can be accomplished.
"We're going to do win this state by going to every school in the state of Illinois. We're going to be there, and we're going to be seen, and we're going to recruit your guys and evaluate your film. We're going to give you honest feedback.
"I've got a box of film here. We've got coaches out on the road, so who is going to evaluate that film? Somebody's got to evaluate it, there might be a player in there. 90% of those kids are from the state of Illinois, so what are they thinking if they don't hear anything back? They don't care."
Nichols just recently received his Illinois cell phone and email address. It didn't take long for people to find him.
"I've only had an e-mail account four days, and I have a ton of e-mails to evaluate and answer. Who's doing that?
"Here's one from Tim Salem (running back coach and special team coordinator). Tim was just in the high school, and he wants the film evaluated immediately. He really likes one of the kids and wants to know whether the kid is worth it to go back and see after school, to watch him play a baseball game. If he's not, he's got a track meet he needs to go to.
"So the film has been evaluated by someone knowledgeable. He's got to be called up and told to do this because the kid is really good, or don't worry about it, he ain't good enough. He's going to five more school this afternoon; he doesn't have time to sit down in the car and watch the film."
Another problem that has cropped up occasionally in the past is sons of lettermen. Former Illini are spread out all over the country, and yet some become upset if their sons are not contacted by their alma mater. It is extremely difficult to know who all these kids are without assistance. Nichols is aware of the dilemma.
"The best way is them contacting us. Everything that gets sent to Coach about recruiting gets sent to me. Every film that shows up in this recruiting office that gets logged in comes to me.
"If it's a former letterman, or like recently I got a letter from a member of the US House of Representatives, I've got to take a look at it. We have a letterman's club we're trying to get going to help us with that."
The Illinois coaching staff must be in agreement with any player offered a scholarship. Those who are offered have impressed at least five members of the staff.
"It starts in the recruiting office. It gets approved here, then it goes to the area coach. It gets approved there and goes to the position coach, from the position coach to the coordinator, and from the coordinator to the head coach. It's got to go through five steps."
On some occasions, offers are made by staff members while on the road, like they are in this May evaluation period. But the legwork has already been done.
"We are not going to any high school that we don't already know who we're going to look at. You've already seen his film, so you already know about him. The evaluation has already taken place, but we want to see him in person at a baseball game or whatever.
"The film says he's 6'-4", but when you see him in person he's only 6'-1". So the eyeball test is also part of the evaluation. We want to see them live in a track meet, in a baseball game. That's important to us."
Perhaps the best way to evaluate prospects is summer camps. Top upcoming seniors with numerous college offers often skip these camps, but they are essential for borderline players and underclassmen.
"The other thing that's going to help us with evaluations is the camps. We are not just doing camps on campus now, but all over the place. That will be more convenient for the players.
"There is no substitute for working with a player. Can he follow directions? How does he work into your goals? There's a real good ability for us to compare because we do similar drills for each camp. So you've got a chance from day to day to remember one guy is better than another. You've got a good sense of comparison.
"The camps are two-fold for us. One, we want to identify the best players. Two, we want to eliminate guys. The reason is, if we can identify guys and knock them off the board, then we can focus our time on the guys we really want.
"If you get too broad, you can't do anything. If you can focus in on 20 guys, you can get after those guys. But with 100 you're stretched too thin."
At the time of this interview, the Illini had only four commitments for 2013, low by Big 10 standards. Three more have added their names since, including four-star quarterback Aaron Bailey. Seven commitments by early May is large compared with previous seasons, but many in Illini Nation fear it isn't good enough. Nichols explains why Illini coaches are unconcerned about commitment numbers at this point.
"Recruiting is a long process. Things can and will change between now and February. That's part of the reason why it's so exciting come February because, the closer it gets, the more difficult it becomes for those young men to say, 'This is definitely what I want.'
"That being said, Coach Beckman and I were just talking about this. We're going to recruit what fits this program. Just because a young man is a five-star or four-star player, it doesn't necessarily mean he might fit here.
"The thing is, recruiting is competitive. It's serious business to get a young man to make a decision to not only spend the next four years here but make a 40 year decision. For that young man to make that, it's just not that easy.
"We're going to recruit harder than anybody in the country. But we're going to recruit for the best fit for our program. Whether that means he's a five-star or three-star or whatever, we're going to do the best we can to evaluate those guys and get the best fit for our program.
"And then, we've got all these coaches on staff. We've got the best strength coach in the country to develop them. That's how you really start to develop a program where year in and year out, you're winning consistently. Just because you lose one guy, the next guy steps in. The fit is correct."
The recruiting process doesn't necessarily end when a player commits to a school. Illini coaches understand their need to maintain communication lines with committed players because others are still recruiting them. By the same token, there might be a player or two decommit from other schools and reconsider the Illini. The process requires patience, determination and endurance.
"We try to recruit the best we can under the assumption that everybody is open. Now, if they tell us this is where they're going, that's fine.
"But if they're still responsive, and they're still calling us and say they want to come to a game or a Junior Day or a spring practice, then we're going to recruit them until February signing day comes around. We'll try to get the best players, the best persons, the best student-athletes on campus."
While the state of Illinois doesn't always produce star-level talent in quantities to assure championship teams, it is essential the Illini recruit the home state hard. The current staff has some catching up to do; last year, nearly every top player went somewhere other than Illinois. Nichols and the rest of the staff are aware of the problem and are determined to reverse that trend.
"We are working every day to make sure that the Illinois high school coaches, the players, the fans, the teachers in the entire state know that this is the state university in Illinois. We are going to win this state before we go anywhere else.
"There will be no other university in the country that is in every high school in the state of Illinois. And we're going to host a free spring clinic for every high school coach in Illinois May 11."
Illini Nation wants it to happen now. Nichols can only promise the staff will do everything in its power to build a fence around the state to keep top players home.
"I can't give you a time frame on that. We want it to happen right now; we wanted it to happen yesterday. We're working as hard as we possibly can on 2013, 2014, 2015 and on and on. We're going to do whatever it takes to win this state. Everything else is secondary."