Illinois football head coach Bill Cubit leads a guest into the Illini staff meeting room. The decades-old room in the decades-old football office building is not all that fancy. There aren’t many bells and whistles.
But for most outsiders, it’s a bit of a wonder.
This space -- about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide with a large executive table in the middle -- is what is often referred to in sports as “the war room."
The walls are covered by dry erase boards. The south wall features a long dry erase board that contains a wealth of information. The left side of this board is reserved for recruits in the current recruiting class (now the class of 2016). Each position has a column. Each column features magnetic player cards stacked based on priority: the top-rated guys on top with the other targets in descending order by preference.
The right side of the south wall is devoted to Class of 2017 recruits, again broken into columns by position. These 2017 columns contain more rows of magnetic player cards since the 2016 resources are running low with just 11 days left before the Feb. 3 Signing Day.
The middle of the south wall is reserved for commits: the top half of the small space reserved for 2016 commits, the bottom half for 2017 commits. On this day, Jan. 16, the 2016 class listed 18 commits -- fewer than is listed publicly because the staff expects one "commit" will not enroll at Illinois -- with about six or seven slots left empty, slots the staff aims to fill in the coming weeks. The 2017 class currently lists just one commit, but the focus doesn’t fully turn to that class until later this month for the first of several junior days.
The north wall features a drawn year-long calendar. The west wall features the Illini depth chart. The graduated seniors are already off the board, a process that happened quickly after the Illini’s season-ending loss to Northwestern at Soldier Field on Saturday.
Following a 5-7 season, the Illini lost several seniors who will have a shot at the NFL: defensive lineman Jihad Ward, running back Josh Ferguson, guard Ted Karras, safety Clayton Fejedelem and receiver Geronimo Allison. Those losses leave the depth chart with many questions.
The meeting on this late Saturday morning is meant to help answer some of those questions, some short-term (a priority for this staff) and more long-term.
Most of the Illini staff is gathered in the meeting room -- offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit, outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson, defensive coordinator Mike Phair and defensive backs coach Paul Williams are all absent as they were still traveling back from visits to recruits -- when Bill Cubit walks through the door.
Cubit sits at the head of the table on the east side of the room. Director of football operations sits closest to the left of Cubit. The offensive coaches present -- wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy, tight ends coach Jeff Hecklinski, offensive line coach A.J. Ricker and running backs coach Nathan Scheelhaase -- sit in chairs on the south wall with team athletic trainer Jeremy Busch seated in the southwest corner behind them. Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Hillman sitsopposite of Cubit on the long table. The lone defensive assistant in attendance, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle, sits to Cubit’s right with recruiting staffers Pat Embleton and Scott Yielding sitting to his right.
Cubit, sitting in the head chair, officially opens business for an important weekend, the first of the final three official visit weekends leading up to Signing Day.
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There is no gavel to call to order this meeting. Robert’s Rules of Order would just be a hindrance here. Timing is of the essence with recruits arriving in Champaign within the hour.
Cubit starts the meeting informally. He tells tales of his last few days in Chicago. Most of the staff members have had a whirlwind week following the end of the month-long dead period, which prohibits coaches from visiting and directly calling or texting recruits (they can message recruits through social media). The staff zig-zagged across the country, visiting recruits at their schools or in their homes. Cubit was scheduled to visit eight or nine states in five days during the following week.
He had spent the previous two days in the Chicagoland area.
“It was outstanding,” Cubit said. “It really was. I was really encouraged. I put 637 miles on the car in Chicago.”
Like every Illini coach before him, Cubit is prioritizing the Chicago area, following the program’s slogan “Our State, Our Team.” But Cubit said three high school coaches who he;d visited told him an Illini coach hadn’t stepped foot in their schools in more than three years.
He tells a tale of a weary traveler.
“I was going to West Aurora,” Cubit said. “I was trying to find something to eat. The guy said, ‘If you go to Batavia, you’ve gone too far. The next day, I was in Batavia. I was like, ‘Wasn’t I just here yesterday?’
“It was a whirlwind, and they’re excited. There were three schools I went in there and they literally had three people waiting at the front desk because we were coming. ...(At one school) the lady at the front desk … she was a huge Illini fan.”
At this point, Ricker steps out to talk to an official visitor who just landed at the airport.
Cubit changes the conversation to focus on a commitment the staff had received the day prior. He and Hecklinski visited the recruit at his home.
“We saw there was an Illinois flag hanging out the front door,” Hecklinski said. “We knew it was done when we walked in.”
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Cubit asks Bellamy and Ricker about a priority recruit who they had visited the day prior. The three-star prospect plans a Signing Day decision.
“I thought it went really well,” Ricker said. “I’ll be absolutely shocked if he doesn’t pick us.”
Added Bellamy: “I think we got to be on him every day, every week until the end. He had Illinois shorts on, Illinois pictures up. I just don’t see him not coming here.”
Cubit chimes in: “I tweet at him every day. He always gets back to me.”
Then Ricker: “Mom’s definitely on our side. I think it will be a (Signing Day) thing with the hats. I told him, ‘We’re trying to build something, so we need to know before.’ He can still do the hats but…”
Cubit ends the discussion about this particular player with: “Well, we’ll just give him three Illinois hats.”
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Cubit then quickly runs down a list of commitments Illinois had visited the previous week.
On this particular day, the Illini had 18 commitments. But as the week ahead showed -- the Illini dropping a recruit; two players committing and possible academic issues for another commit or two -- those commitments mean nothing until Signing Day.
After most of the names, Cubit quickly says, “He’s good.”
He poses a name to Scheelhaase, who visited this commitment the prior week: “He said Rutgers and Penn State wants to get him on a visit for the last weekend, but he’s not going.”
Recruiting doesn’t just stop with a commitment. Until the fax -- yes, the NCAA still uses faxes -- or the PDF comes through with that prospective student-athlete’s signature, the recruitment isn’t yet won.
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About 18 minutes into the meeting, Cubit relents control: “All right, I’m going to turn this over to you guys now.”
Hecklinski -- a burly man with a deep, booming voice with a tiny tinge of a Dixie twang, even though he grew up in Palatine, Ill. -- assumes control. While Ryan Cubit will be recruiting coordinator through Signing Day, the newly appointed offensive coordinator likely will pass on recruiting coordinator duties to Hecklinski after that. Hecklinski, who had the role for four seasons at Michigan under head coach Brady Hoke, is a natural.
He starts to run down the list of eight official visitors scheduled to attend that week, providing points on each player.
One of Bill Cubit’s initiatives is to relent as long as possible on settling for recuits. Relenting battles in recruiting will result in relenting on the field.
Yes, Illinois will sign players who won’t have many or any other power-five conference offers. That’s the reality of a program that has a 25-year history of inconsistency and struggle. But in an attempt to break that streak, Cubit's staff is seeking out more battles with power-five peers. Yes, Illinois will lose many battles. But the Illini also might surprise and win a couple and land a few difference-makers who help the program take the next step.
The first prospect Hecklinski brings to the table is committed to another power-five conference school but is reconsidering his options following a coaching change at that program.
“He’s got (a) North Carolina State (offer) ?” Hecklinski throws in the direction of Embleton, who organizes much of the staff’s schedule.
“North Carolina State, Maryland and Rutgers, I believe,” Embleton said.
Adds Hecklinski: “Seamo (Illini assistant Al Seamonson) was in there last night and said the kid looks great. He’s all of 6-6 and a half. He’s a little thin. He’s a basketball and baseball player, so he’s never really had time to train. He said the kid looks like he can get to 250 (pounds). He said he’s probably a year and a half away from that though.”
Hecklinski yields to Bellamy on the next target, who recently decommitted from another power-five program.
“He’s waiting on (a school that’s not Illinois),” Bellamy said. “They’re waiting on grades. They’re waiting on (one school) to offer. He’s big on academics though. He wants to major in international business.”
Hecklinski reassumes control, now focusing on two more players who had previously committed to power-five programs.
On a linebacker: “I’m assuming he is going to commit on the visit.”
On a tight end: “I would assume he is going to commit on the visit too.”
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Evaluating the top college football prospects -- the four- and five-star guys -- is pretty easy. They simply have the best size, speed and athleticism.
But separating the legit power-five players among the two- or three-stars is a tougher task. How the coaches attempt to project these prospects can be intriguing and, to outsiders, a bit comical.
On one 6-foot-2 offensive lineman, Hecklinski said: “His dad’s probably 6-foot-4. He may be 6-5. He told me he grew about three inches in college.”
On another offensive lineman, Cubit said: “We saw (him) play basketball. He will not be getting a scholarship to play basketball. ...His vertical jump was may be a few inches.”
The discussion also focuses on who influences the recruitment.
On one official visitor, Hecklinski said: “Mom and dad will both be big with him just with the family being away from home. The more people we get around them the better off we’re going to be in the long run.”
Bellamy starts on another target. “The coach loves us. He said it’s a great opportunity for him. The mother already looked at next year’s schedule.”
Hecklinski chimes in: “We want this kid. He’s really good.”
The conversation switches to another target and how to sell him. This prospect wants to play one position. Illinois wants to play him at another.
McGarigle asks the room how they want to play it. Say whatever it takes to get the kid? Tell him the absolute truth? Or somewhere in between?
Bellamy says Illinois can’t ruin a relationship at a school by lying to a kid about the position he’ll play and then switching him to another position when he arrives.
After a brief discussion, Hecklinski has the plan: “I would sell him as an athlete. We have to see how the class sorts itself out. We’ll start you there, but you’ll have to talk to both coaches about it. We want to be fair to you, but we can play you at multiple positions right now.”
The last target they discuss is a priority lineman.
Ricker says, “Great kid. Just a raw kid. He’s going to be super quiet. He’s going to be to himself.”
Cubit says, “He’s the kind of guy who make us look like a Big Ten team.”
Bellamy adds, “His coach told us he’s ours to lose.”
Despite what the staff thought was a great visit that weekend, Illinois unexpectedly lost the recruitment. Recruiting can break your heart.
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When most fans think of official visits, they probably picture players attending football or basketball games, current players taking them out to experience student life, campus tours and meetings with the coaches. All those things happen.
But what does the visit center around? Food. Pounds of it.
Hecklinski runs down the schedule for Saturday. The plan is to take a few recruits to a campus bar and restaurant for lunch before taking them to the Illinois-Nebraska basketball game. The staff considers skipping the restaurant and just going to the basketball game to sell the atmosphere to a few visitors.
“We can feed them at the hoops game,” Embleton said. “We can just get them hot dogs and fries at the hoops game if that is all right.”
The rest of the recruits will show up around 2 p.m. and will meet in the players’ lounge for pizza and wings.
“Make sure we’re intermingling," Hecklinski said. "We’ve all done this before. The more they get to know everybody on the staff, the more comfortable they feel. You got as big of a role as anybody. If they know everybody, they’re going to become attached to this school.”
At 4:30 p.m. the staff and player hosts will make their introductions to players and recruits.
At this time, Hecklinski starts to talk about “SUV assignments”: who’s driving to and away from a 6 p.m. dinner at a local steakhouse. Hecklinski tells the staff they will switch up who rides in which car with which player so the recruits will get to know everybody.
“The more we talk, the more information we get, the more we know how to attack,” Hecklinski said. “The parents are going to want to meet the players. If the parents are on the visit, they’re going to want to know who their sons are hanging out with. It’s important to know the parents as much as the players.”
For a late-arriving recruit, Embleton has set up a reservation at another restaurant close to the football facility -- so, they can feed him, of course.
Hecklinski starts breaking down the Sunday schedule, starting with breakfast of course.
Here, Cubit raises a timing concern.
“I’m just being selfish,” Cubit said. “I have to go to mass.”
He turns to Knox, “Do they have a 10:30 mass? I can go tomorrow at 10:30.”
Hecklinski chimes in: “You can go to church during the campus tour.”
The Sunday schedule includes -- well, plenty of food, but also -- a meeting with Busch, who will measure the recruits’ height, weight, wingspan, hand length, etc. The staff will compare this to their players and NFL players (the ideal measurement). If a player is drastically under the mark of any ideal measurement, it could be a concern.
The staff will then sell the university’s strong academics. With most professors still out of town on winter vacation, the staff will have teachers assistants available from each college to answer questions.
“Academics will take precedence,” Hecklinski said, “So if at 1 o’clock, this runs late, everything else will get pushed back. We don’t ever want to cut academics short.”
Then, of course, more food.
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Most official visits end on Sunday (after prospects arrive on Friday), but with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on this particular Monday, this official visit weekend (which started on a Saturday) ends on the start of the real-word work week.
The last day of an official visit is an important day -- even though the Illini will have already secured a commitment hours into Saturday’s activities. The final day of the 48-hour official visit is the day Illinois really makes a push for securing a verbal commitment.
“The important thing here is we got them one-on-one, so they got the whole staff one-on-one with the family and the kids,” Hecklinski said. “I mean, you talk about just loving it up. You prep them so that when you send them into coach, you get that kid to pop (commit) if he’s ready to pop.”
Football recruiting can be very territorial, even within staffs. Some recruiting websites list assistant’s names by recruits, giving them full credit for landing a particular player. That “gold star” means a lot to assistants due to both self-marketing (for future jobs) and ego.
Cubit wants the Illinois staff to better work toward the same goal -- improving Illinois -- regardless of who gets the credit.
Hecklinski hammers this home at the end of the meeting.
“The one thing coach said … it’s not about 'your guy,'” Hecklinski said. “The philosophy of recruiting … with the change he’s implementing is they’re 'our guys.' We recruit everybody as a family. We’re going to recruit the families too.
Cubit also feels the previous staff recruited too much by position, with position coaches flying across the country to recruit their specific part of the depth chart. That led to too few relationships and too many missed players, Cubit feels. Now, each staff member recruits areas to develop longer, stronger relationships for future classes. Then the position coach can come in later in the process.
It’s late in the process for the Class of 2016. The staff has more than a handful of spots to fill on a depth chart with several holes. On a two-year deal -- something they’re minimizing by telling media and recruits that no coach really has long-term security -- the staff must overcome big challenges.
But on this Saturday, they appear and sound ready to attack them head on, as a team.
Hecklinski gives a mini pump-up speech before they attack a big weekend ahead.
“Let’s make sure we’re in with everybody,” Hecklinski said. “We have so many people, there should never be a time where we have someone standing by themselves or sitting by themselves. If you don’t know them, go over and introduce yourself. Go sit down and talk. Have a conversation. Ask questions. Probably the best question you can ask is not, ‘What did you like about it?’ They’ll love everything about it. … Find out what they don’t like (about other programs) so we can attack it. Now, we can turn it to our end and make it look good for us on our end of it. The parents are key. The parents are here. That’s the keys. Because that’s who they’ll look toward to at the end.”
Illinois hosted eight official visitors this weekend. The staff received two commitments from prospects while on campus: Houston tight end Zarrian Holcombe and Tapron Springs (Fla.) linebacker Jake Hansen. The Illini are expected to be major players in the recruitments of other prospects they hosted as well.
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A special thank you to the Illinois football staff for the behind-the-scenes access.