Four prominent high school coaches discuss Lovie's impact on Illini football recruiting

On Wednesday, Illinois coach Lovie Smith will sign his first recruiting class at Illinois. Despite a late start, his Illini staff will sign one of the two highest-ranked Illini classes of the last seven years. Illini Inquirer caught up with four prominent high school football coaches from different key areas in the Illini recruiting base to discuss Smith's impact on Illini recruiting efforts. Here are their words.

On the impact of Lovie's hire

Todd Kuska, Chicago St. Rita head coach: "I think it generated a lot of excitement around the state. He's got a couple Catholic guys going in this class (St. Rita's Marc Mondesir and Brother Rice's Ricky Smalling), and I cant remember the last time that happened. That's good for the conference and good for Illinois. Its a great conference and it's good for the kids to go to the state school."

Ken Leonard, Springfied (Ill.) Sacred Heart-Griffin head coach: “I thought it was a good hire. I thought it got some excitement in the Illinois community. It kind of made Illinois football relevant again. He’s on ESPN SportsCenter and stuff, so that’s a good thing.

“I think he’s well-respected. He’s a good man. I think because he was with the Bears and got them to the Super Bowl, I think he’s well-respected among high school coaches. I think it’s got some excitement. They got to recruit nation-wide, but hopefully they’ll recruit locally and from the state and get a share of their players from Illinois.”

Troy McAllister, Chicago Phillips head coach: “I thought it was great. You look around the Big Ten and see some of those names of Big Ten coaches, it’s great to see Illinois step up and hire a big name like Lovie. Obviously in the Chicago area, there’s a lot of respect and love for Lovie up here. It’s great to see.”

On the staff's recruiting focus, effort so far

Cory Patterson, St. Louis Trinity Catholic head coach: “Just a presence. I can’t remember the last time Illinois had a real presence in St. Louis. You see those guys in this area a lot. You see Thad (Ward) in this area a lot. You see (Garrick) McGee coming down to this area a lot. Just that presence of seeing him and having Lovie, a lot of guys that come from where we come from, we like to be able to look at a guy like Lovie. And he gives those guys a lot of encouragement, like, ‘I got something I can accomplish behind a guy like this.’ You can tell that his assistant coaches believe in him. Those guys when they come out, they believe in Coach Smith. Thad believes in what Coach Smith. He believes in what he’s doing. You can tell when he talks, he doesn’t say, ‘Well, he wants to do this.’ You hear that sometimes. The recruiting coordinator isn’t recruiting for the coach anymore. When those guys come down, they’re working for Coach Smith. I enjoy that myself. That shows their loyalty and what they want to do with the program.”

Ken Leonard: “I think good. I got a running back I think they need to look at. Coach (Mike) Phair and Coach (Luke) Butkus have this area. They’ve done a great job. I hope they get a good look, a fair look. I think if everything’s equal, they should take the Illinois kid. My perspective on it, I think they should almost own the downstate area, and I think there’s some really good downstate players. I think you look at the past. I think bodes well with some of the players that have come out of the downstate football teams. Then I think out of Chicago, you get a good share. You’re not going to get them all, that’s for sure. But if you don’t own your own state and get the best players from your own state, then it’s hard to ever compete at the Division I level for sure. I think every state that does that does pretty well.”

Troy McAllister: “I think recruiting-wise, they’re really trying to target in state and find the best guys that they can get that fit what they need. I think sometimes people get drawn into the rankings and, ‘Oh, this guy is a four-star,’ and this and that. But they appear to be targeting the young men that are going to fit their program and do have somewhat of a profile and fit what they want. It’s great to see them going after the players in state in particular. I had a pretty good relationship with Coach Ward when he was at NIU, so he’s been a great contact guy for us.”

Todd Kuska: "The passion that Coach Butkus brings, he's an Illinois guy. He had success when he was at Illinois. He's passionate about bringing that success back. He's selling us on the fact that they want to do it with Illinois kids and keep the Illinois talent in Illinois. You always wants to believe someone that's talking about their alma mater. They have passion."

On learning from mistakes of past staffs

Todd Kuska: "I've had some great football players come through there. Not a lot of them have had Illinois offers. They kind of waited and other schools come in and swept them up. Other guys have gone Big Ten and ACC. It's just a matter of staying true to that and recruiting the kids in state and getting after it. Maybe we won't have an offensive linemen that's 6-6, but he's 6-4 an wants to play for his home state. That will go for a long way to keeping those guys in Illinois."

Ken Leonard: “I just think sometimes the pretty girl isn’t always the best. You better go with some of the people that have some ties to them. At our school, everyone knows Malik (Turner) is there. That’s a big deal. I think our kids, our best players and we got a couple sophomores who are potential prospects, I think they’re going to look at that.

“I just think that the last group --- and I like Coach Beckman; I can’t say anything bad about him -- but I just think you almost had to double-sell the Illinois staff compared to the other staffs who came in. Especially being down-staters, to make them seem like they’re worthy of playing at Illinois. It’s like Albert (Okwuegbunam) at Missouri. He wasn’t quite good enough (for Illinois) until everyone else got on him. Then all of a sudden (Illinois got on him). That wasn’t Coach Beckman. He was kind of a no-brainer. Right now, he’s 6-6, 265 and ran a 4.5 and probably going to be a pretty good player at Missouri as a tight end. And to be honest with you, with Malik, Malik was hurt as a sophomore and junior. It was one of those deals that I really had to do a hard sell to get them to come over and look at him his junior year at basketball. Once they did, (assistant) Billy Gonzales, he’s the one who came over and say, ‘Yeah.’ Then he got fired that next week after he said, ‘We’re going to offer him.’ Coach Beckman stayed by his word. But the rest of the staff I don’t think was totally sold on him. Then his senior year, everybody came in. Malik stayed strong and the rest is history. I think he’s going to have a great senior year.”

On impact of an African-American head coach

Troy McAllister: “For a lot of young men, it gives them someone they can look up to a little bit more. Especially with Lovie having coached the Bears and having been so great in the community, I just think that means so much and it’s kind of similar to the young men that can kind of see, ‘I remember Lovie when I was younger.’ Now that they’re there, they have that respect for him for what he’s done as a person, as a man and as a coach. It obviously has a big impact. I hope that translates into more public league players going to Illinois. I think you look at Illinois’ past and when they’ve been successful, it’s been when they have a lot of Chicago Public League kids on their team.

“Everybody has this ultimate respect for Lovie for what he’s done. You got these young men, 17- to 18-year-old men who are getting recruited and remember Lovie as the Bears coach. A lot of the young men in Illinois, the Chicago Bears are the team they rooted for. So to see that face means a lot.”

Cory Patterson: “It means a terrible lot for kids who come from where we come from. Those guys want to play for a guy like that. That’s an opportunity they have to go play for an African-American coach. That’s crazy. That’s another big thing for the University of Illinois. You have a guy that you feel like you can automatically relate to on that level right away. It’s not something you have to build. That stuff’s just already there when you have a black head coach. Some of those guys, that’s a huge deal to be honest. Some people won’t say it, but when some of those guys come from where my guys come from, I think Lovie understands that. That’s why he has a camp (last June) at a place like Trinity Catholic, where it’s a predominantly black area. A lot of the athletes around here, whether they go to school here or in this county or wherever, there’s so many of them that live right around here. That’s why I think that camp was so successful with so many athletes for so many different areas.

“He can walk in a place, and the thing is I’ve been Coach Smith a little bit, he’s not a big talker. He’s not a big rah-rah guy. But there’s something about him that not just with African-American people, but there’s something about him that a lot of people don’t have. There’s something that just comforts you that this guy isn’t selling me everything. Everything about him just seems up-front and honest. That’ why I was so comfortable with Larry just going to the University of Illinois. Because (Illini commit) Larry (Boyd) is like one of my babies. He’s like one of my kids. For all my guys, I love my guys. After I sat down with Coach Smith, we had a conversation and I was totally honest with him and told him what I felt Larry needed and what I felt I thought he needed to be successful as far as academic support and stuff like that. We had a real conversation. … When I talked with Coach Smith, he understood how serious I was about the academic presence and academic support that he’s going to need. He looked me in my face and said, ‘Cory, if it was about football,’ he wouldn’t be here. He said, ‘I want to see him be a successful man.’ That’s enough for me, coach.”

On next steps for Illinois

Troy McAllister: “I think the facilities upgrade is going to be a big deal. I think that’s the thing that’s going to get Illinois on a level playing field with other teams, particularly programs in the Big Ten that can bring a kid down and you’re not trying to hide certain things. I think it’s a great campus, but hopefully the indoor facility needs an upgrade. When that occurs, now you’re bringing young men and their parents in, you’re competing with the Ohio States and Michigan States and Michigans and able to say, ‘Hey, our facilities are just as good.’ You got a former pro coach who has the connections, who’s got the ability to push the young men to get to that next level.”

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