New Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman has added a new department, Player Personnel. It is a way of hiring experienced college coaches to help the recruiting process. Chad Creamer and his boss Paul Nichols can't coach on the field, but they assist the other coaches with the recruiting process.
A number of the Illini's competitors have enjoyed large recruiting staffs for some time now. It is hard to imagine Illinois winning recruiting battles for top prospects without being on even footing with the biggest programs.
"This office is evolving," Creamer explains. "I guess most major programs have this department, with some being bigger than others. Some have 4 to 5 guys running it. I guess it's how detailed you want to be with it. Here, we're pretty detailed with what we do, the information we collect and how we store it and are able to utilize it.
Creamer shares his job description.
"Our big job is organization of the recruiting: guys we're watching, guys we have, guys we're looking at, we want to get it from all aspects. We want to know everything about a kid. Our job is to put that in a place where our coaches can find it."
Considering how much work Creamer and Nichols find to do, it is a wonder former Illini football staffs could compete with top schools for the best prospects without similar help.
"I would say it would be very tough without it. Obviously, the coaches could tell you how much it helps. But we do stay busy all the time, collecting that stuff. It allows our coaches to focus more on what's going on on the field, which is where they need to be."
As a good example of how much help he can provide, Creamer has been extremely busy during a recent six week recruiting period, when UI assistants went on the road for their spring evaluations.
"We were able to help the coaches make the transition a little easier when they went out on the road. They were able to get all the information they needed to get out on the road quickly. We already had a good idea what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go.
"Likewise, when they're out on the road, we are still in here evaluating film when they send it to us. We get a better idea and stay up to date on what's going on in the recruiting world. They can call in, and we can give feedback while they're on the road. Provide some assistance for them."
Illini coaches were especially ambitious this spring. They visited every school in Illinois plus traveled all over the country scouring for prospects that meet their needs. The logistics of such a complex plan required teamwork and outstanding timing.
"Paul and I, along with our recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, help organize travel. We leave it up to the coaches; they usually know their areas best and the kids they need to see in their high schools. We hit every school in Illinois, so that was pretty simple. It was just the logistics of when and what day, which isn't very simple."
Whenever there is a head coach change like the Illini experienced this past winter, the transition to a new coaching staff guarantees initial recruiting problems. The new coaches are often unfamiliar with their school and new territories and find themselves competing against programs that have been recruiting the same players for two or more years.
"We've been behind in the recruiting process since we got here. We got here in December, and our emphasis was on 2012. It was tough finishing that up through January, and that snowballed into 2013.
"People already had a jump on that, while we were finishing up 2012. When we got that done, we were already behind 2013. So we've been trying to catch up by knocking that out one day at a time."
The new staff signed 19 prospects for the 2012 class, and they have been catching up rapidly on the 2013 class with 10 commitments so far. But a significant amount of their work this spring has been on younger prospects.
"A lot of our focus has been on 2014, getting a good jump on those kids. Evaluating those kids and getting a good feel for those kids. We're trying to get ahead with the 2014 kids, so we spent a lot of time on that class."
Getting started early with young prospect helps, but it doesn't guarantee recruiting success. The so-called "superpowers" can swoop in at the last minute and steal away hard-won recruits. The Illini must feel like they are knocking their heads against walls at times.
"There's been a few kids we've been in on early, one of the first offers, and then maybe some other schools will come in, and those kids choose to go there. So that's tough."
Major powers can grab top prospects early in the recruiting process by placing strict deadlines on them. Either they commit now, or they lose a chance to go to a dream school. Many succumb to this pressure.
"We're not going to use any excuses. We still feel we can get in on it, and we can beat them on a kid. At the end of the day, it is a 17-18 -year-old kid making a decision, and that's always tough."
Yes, the competition for recruits is fierce. Yes, Illinois doesn't have a brand or aura about it that presumes success at this time. Patience is required.
"It's a process like anything else. You don't get to where you want to be very quickly. It's about building things one step at a time, moving forward and progressing. We know we're not going to get there overnight; it's not going to happen magically. It will be through hard work and effort.
"However, from what we've seen so far, the gains have been very good. Those programs have been established. We're new and starting from the beginning. It's a matter of taking that and not getting too discouraged, persevering through. You're building it a day at a time.
"With that effort and hard work, we feel very confident we'll get there. So I don't think it's too frustrating. I just know where we're at, and all the room we have to grow."
As Creamer reminds, focus on your assets and not your liabilities, and improvements can be made over time.
"We know we're going to control what we can do ourselves to the best of our abilities, and not be too worried about anyone else. Stay focused on that because we have no control over what these kids are told from another program or what influences their decision.
"It's easy for us to show them what the program is all about and do our best to represent this University. At the end of the day, we feel it's a wonderful school and a wonderful football program. Why would a kid not want to come here? That's how we look at it.
"But again, we're going to focus on ourselves and not really on other people and what they do. We will show them what Illinois is about."
In part three of a four-part report, Creamer talks about making inroads with in-state recruiting.