In the past few years, the Fighting Illini have struggled keeping top football prospects within Illinois to attend their state school. While they always need to supplement their team with skilled players from more distant locales, quality athletes from the home state are an essential ingredient.
Many top college programs recruit the state, especially talent-rich Chicago and its many suburbs. Top prospects have often departed the state for attractive alternatives. Illinois coach Tim Beckman understands how tough it is to recruit Illinois prospects.
"It is, but it's something where the word 'relationships' comes into effect. Recruiting earlier, we're on the freshmen and sophomores and not just the juniors. That's the game, that's recruiting. We've had our coaches in the schools regardless if they were Class-8 or Class-1, shaking hands and building relationships.
"If you look at how we progressed at Toledo, and you look at the type of kids we were getting from that state, that's the type of thing we'd like to do at Illinois. Building that fence around the state."
Unlike basketball, it can be extremely difficult to project college potential for 15 year old kids since many must reach their full physical size before they can demonstrate proficiency. Beckman is selective about whom receives scholarship offers, but he is getting acquainted with large numbers of younger players who may become recruitable eventually.
"I don't think you have to jump and over-offer. We've got to make sure that they show us what they can do on film. Film is our number one means of evaluation, of everything that we do.
"It's how they play the game of football, not how they work out at camps. The camps are kind of like what they do at the NFL with the Combine. The Combine adds to what they've shown on film."
The Illini have emphasized under-the-radar kids who have potential but haven't been recruited heavily. This is a necessary starting point for a new program that must win more games on the field before it can go toe-to-toe with the dominant power schools in recruiting.
"I still think it's about fit. Who fits into the program, who fits into the demands of the university, that's one of the most important things. You've seen great 4-stars and 5-stars become great football players, but you've also seen the no-stars who end up winning the Butkus Award or the Heisman Award. It has proven the fit was there."
While he says he won't be this way at Illinois, Beckman realizes some schools ignore under-the-radar kids as they put all their efforts into competing against other programs for top players. Beckman had success at Toledo by taking advantage of this phenomenon.
"That happens. I don't know how Toledo will be rated this year, but I'm sure they'll be one of the top in the Mid-American. Those were the kids who said 'yes' to the Rockets."
Former Illini head coach Ron Zook allowed his committed players to visit other schools, figuring they should be happy with their decisions. Beckman has allowed one current UI commitment to travel to schools with his teammates for camps, but otherwise he uses the opposite approach from Zook.
"I'm still a firm believer in the values and morals that my father is talking. If you make a commitment, you make a commitment. When we offer a young man, he understands that we've offered more than just one at that position. He knows exactly how many scholarships we have.
"When they make a commitment to us, we make a commitment to them too. It's their scholarship, so we're putting it away. If they're going to go out and look at a couple other places, that scholarship comes off the shelf, and were going to go recruit who we need to recruit to be successful."
Head coaches are no longer permitted to travel to evaluate players in May. Since Beckman is considered an outstanding recruiter, that ruling limits what he can do. Of course, he can still invite players to make unofficial visits to campus. And he is always looking for other things he can do during that time.
"We're gonna abide by what the rules are. We've got to think of other ways to get players to me and get coaches to me. That's why we have a clinic in May where we can talk football. We'd like to have more, but we had a good turnout this year."
The entire UI staff is constantly looking for creative ways of bringing a unique slant to recruiting that will be of interest to prospects.
"I think the biggest change this year is the technology. Being able to, when we're allowed to talk to players with that one phone call, use Skype or whatever. Now they can see me when we're talking. And we did some other things when we're talking to them that showed them that Illinois would be a special place for them. I think those are some things that might have changed little bit.
"You've always got to have something different because otherwise, it's same old, same old. You've got to come out with something different."
Different without cheating, that is. How prevalent cheating is in college football is debatable, but Beckman hasn't found more shortcuts this year than any other.
"I haven't heard a whole bunch of negative recruiting. I still think the head coaches in college football recruit in a fair way and do it to the best of their ability. They try to sell their program first.
"I don't really know what they're doing, I just know what we're doing. We're going to talk about Illinois and how we're different than everybody else."
There are a number of 7-on-7 teams organized by fathers, amateur coaches and a few street agents. They are beginning to travel around the country to tourneys during summers, much like is done these days in basketball. Will that lead to more cheating? Beckman is uncertain.
"It's still about the student-athlete and how you can make that athlete the best he can be. They had 7-on-7 teams years ago. Now it's coming more to where those guys are getting on buses from different schools and cruising around here than 10 years ago. Now it's become 7-on-7 teams. It has progressed, and I'm sure it's something the NCAA is looking into because it has created a situation that is different."
Basketball middle men create dependencies in prospects by buying them cell phones and other items they crave in exchange for power to decide for them what school they should attend. Is that happening more now in football also?
"We have not experienced those things, but we know that they're out there. I do think sometimes people lose the vision that we do this for the kids. You do what you do for the kids, not for yourself or for me. How can we make our youth better in the game of football? That's often the goal."
Overall, Beckman hasn't seen many changes in recruiting over the years.
"It's still the same. We're going to go out and recruit to the end; we always have. Treat it as if it's a game. You've got to go out and sell your program, sell your family, sell what you want and what you believe in. Tell that young man why he can be successful in your program.
"We're attacking recruiting in the exact same way. That's why these camps have been going on for six years. We're doing them exactly the way I've seen them work at Oklahoma State and at Toledo. That's the things we're going to continue to do."
Beckman has made a number of changes in the Illini football program. He has a creative bend and is always thinking of new ways to improve his teams and attract bigger followings. In part three of his five-part interview, he discusses some of these changes.