Through the Trifocals

Everyone wants to recruit the superstars. But not all highly rated athletes are truly the best athletes to recruit, either for basketball or football. Illinisports discusses the type of athlete who can best help the Illini. <br><br> Read more in Illinisports latest column for

I have seen much discussion on both the basketball and football boards lately about recruiting strategies. Some posters are adamant that Illinois must recruit the elite players for both sports, and others are trying to adapt their personal wishes with the current realities of big-time college sports. The former are sometimes accused of being naive, and the latter are sometimes accused of settling for mediocrity. What is right and proper when it comes to recruiting?

Yes, it would be ideal if Illinois could recruit only top 50 players in basketball and top 150 players for football. But the reality is that we have only a minimal ability to attract these athletes at the present time. There are many factors that impede our progress, and most of these relate directly to the desires and perceptions of the elite athletes themselves.

In basketball, the top 10-15 players, according to the recruiting "gurus", fancy themselves as NBA prospects who can potentially forego their college careers alltogether and jump straight from high school to the pros. A few of these players yearly are truly worthy of NBA contracts. Some others become disinterested in maintaining their academic standing since they don't believe it will matter, so they become ineligible for college and sign up for the draft as their only option. Or, they opt for prep schools or junior colleges. Regardless, some of these players, especially the tallest ones, are not heavily recruited by any of the major powers because they are unlikely to attend college.

The next 25-35 players are attractive to all the top programs. If they are academically eligible, they have a number of options. Illinois wants to be one of the top schools, but the name does not yet conjure up the same image in recruits' minds as does Duke, North Carolina, Arizona, U Conn, Kentucky, Kansas, Florida, UCLA, Michigan, Syracuse and a few others.

Those athletes, whose egos may need reinforcement from their peers and families, may select an "elite" school just for bragging rights. The chance to win a National Championship, the ultimate exposure for those seeking a professional contract, also pushes many to matriculate to schools who have won championships recently. They are looking for the shortest path to success and stardom.

Those in the upper echelon of high school basketball who also are stars academically have their pick of all the top schools, including the academic ones. If they also have strong religious affiliations, they may find private religious schools an important option. If they have their hands out, they can find plenty of extra bonuses promised by any number of hopeful schools. If their families, friends, financial advisors and AAU coaches are greedy, these hangers-on may try to work the colleges for their personal benefit. There are all sorts of cheaters out there, and there are many schools who are tempted to use cheating to make up for a lack of image or recent success. So the two groups have no trouble finding each other.

This scenario is identical for football, except there are some variations as to which schools are considered the most elite. Oklahoma, USC, Miami, Florida State, Florida, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas, Tennessee, LSU, UCLA, Michigan, and several others roll off the tongues of top football players more easily than Illinois. You look at a national recruiting list, and you will see that nearly every top athlete will list the above schools among their favorites. It is hard to recruit against the combination of field success and marketing propaganda that have characterized the top programs over the years.

There are a few special football players who are almost impossible to recruit unless you are either elite, wealthy, or both. With the possible exception of the great halfback who is also talented academically and of high moral fiber (Rashard Mendenhall may possess this rare combination), almost all the top All-Americans are offered massive illegal inducements to attend certain schools. Even if they don't base their college decisions on these inducements, they know they will be well cared for during their college years.

The same is undoubtedly true for the rare and exceptional defensive linemen with great speed and explosiveness; the speedy cover corners who can tie up any receiver; the dominant wide receivers who are both large and fast; the strong, quick and athletic offensive linemen; and the tight ends who are built like linemen but run and catch like wide receivers. An honest program that is not at the elite level has almost no chance of recruiting any of these players.

Another major problem in recruiting the players who most dominate at the high school level, especially in football, relates to the efforts of parents and trainers to build up athletes physically in order to get high rankings and major college scholarships. Some athletes are held back in school a year to gain size and strength as compared to their classmates. Some are encouraged to spend all 12 months of the year working on one sport alone, which can create short-term improvement but long-term burnout. And illegal substances such as growth hormone and designer steroids are being used on some athletes to cheat the system and help them gain a short-term advantage.

The problem with recruiting these athletes is in deciding if they have already "maxed out" as athletes while still in high school. Some schools, due to their need to maintain their national elite status, have no choice but to recruit the players ranked the highest. They need everyone to see their names near the top of the recruiting rankings just like the players. So they may end up recruiting some players who have no more room to improve. These players may be more capable of competing for a position as entering freshmen than their late-developing peers, but they level off or fall back after that. If they used illegal supplements in high school but are forbidden to use them in college (some schools still have integrity), they may begin a rapid decline and be heard from no more. Or if they have behavioral or family problems that interfere with their potential, a steady decline is likely.

Actually, an even more likely scenario is that some college, slightly lower in the pecking order but desirous of the publicity of recruiting a top-ranked player, signs such a player. The fans of that college might rejoice that their team has beaten elite programs for the recruit. But in actuality, the elite programs might have backed off of him after realizing his limits. So the player attends the alternative choice school and then fails to have the career expected of him. Illinois has recruited a player like this on occasion. Does anyone remember Eric Jefferson? There have been others as well.

Before analyzing possible recruiting strategies for the Illini, it is necessary to discuss the problems created by the self-proclaimed recruiting experts. These people have become extremely important because fans want their favored schools to succeed and can't wait to learn what great players plan to attend their schools. A few recruiting gurus really earn their money and do their level best to evaluate talent accurately, and they still miss on a number of prospects. Many others have limitations and vested interests that make their evaluations suspect at best. Unfortunately, they have great power despite their limitations.

Many players are seen only once or twice (if that) before being compared with others. If they are seen on their bad days, they will be undervalued. If they are in the "zone" at that time, they will be overvalued. Most recruiting analysts have no time to evaluate more thoroughly because of the sheer quantity of players. They may rely on the word of their friends and less-experienced employees to provide information. And once an evaluation is made, other "experts" may use that information to add detail to their own evaluations. Thus, one initial mistake can be compounded many times over. An early reputation can allow a player a permanent place at the top of the evaluation lists even if he has played poorly since, or vice versa.

Recruiting evaluators tend to favor extreme athleticism over all else. Vertical jumps, 40-yard dash times, bench press maximums, scoring averages, etc., can all indicate one's level of natural ability, but they cannot judge a person's heart, motivation, coachability, leadership, unselfishness or all those other intangible qualities that make a great player. They cannot help you know who is a real winner.

The Illini's Deron Williams is a good case in point. Some Illini fans were concerned that he was not ranked higher in his senior class. But Deron is more concerned about setting up his teammates for open shots and winning than he is about scoring totals or personal glory. Deron is a natural leader and "glue guy" who makes any team better, but most recruiting experts have no inclination to compare Deron's talents favorably with the explosiveness of some of his peers. And yet, when all is said and done, Deron Williams may eventually be drafted higher than most or all of his point guard competitors.

Illini fans, like similar fans for every school, want their school to recruit the best players. However, I cannot always agree with their real motives. I also want us to recruit great players, but my biggest goal is winning. If we win Big 10 Championships, or if we can someday win a National Championship, then I don't care where our players were ranked in high school.

People sometimes refer to UCLA's 10 National Championships under John Wooden as proof of the need for superstars. And yes, they had many superstars over the years. But their first championship was won by a team whose tallest player was 6'-5". Yes, guard Gail Goodrich was an excellent shooter who later played in the pros, but that team won on chemistry, hustle, teamwork and heart more than athleticism or talent. It is wonderful to have great talent, but there are other factors that help to determine winners.

I believe a significant number of fans are more interested in bragging rights than victories. They want us to be ranked in the top five or higher in recruiting every year, and they look to blame our head coaches if we don't accomplish this. But will that guarantee victories? They seem to make that assumption even though it is not always true. Granted, it is usually preferable to recruit players with the best rankings, but I believe we should reconsider this strategy if we truly want to win within the current climate of college sports.

In basketball, with so many players turning pro either after high school or within their first three years of college, winning requires that a team either recruit superstars every year (an almost impossible task) or recruit players who will stay for four years and continue to improve and grow as they mature. In football, the Illini are so far removed from elite status right now that we have no choice but to recruit a level of player lower than the upper echelon. And if the National Football League eventually relents and allows younger players to be eligible for their draft, college football will have the same problems as basketball.

I agree with the plans of Coaches Weber and Turner regarding the recruitment of "late-bloomers", players who have not yet reached their ultimate potential but who show signs of growing far beyond their present status. People mature at different rates, and some of the ones who grow the soonest and dominate in their younger years level off and fail to improve once they reach college. The ones who develop later can sometimes explode way past their early-developing counterparts once they finally reach maturity. It is these players who can stay in school 3-4 years and help their college teams win championships because they have worked within the system and have knowledge and wisdom as well as athleticism.

Jamie Brandon, the star guard through four years of high school at Chicago King, comes to mind when I think about early developers who level off. He was great in high school, average in college, and never made it to the NBA. And yet he was ranked in the top ten nationally in all recruiting service rankings. He dominated because he matured so quickly, but he couldn't continue to develop after high school.

Consider these other basketball superstars who leveled off early. Richard Keene (Collinsville), Rashard Griffith (King), Gary Bell (Joliet), Bryant Notree (Simeon), Mike Robinson (Peoria), Joey Range (Galesburg), Lance Williams (Julian), and Leon Smith (King). They all dominated at the high school level, but not beyond. Some had varying degrees of success in college, but not as much as predicted by their lofty high school rankings. Even Sergio McClain, whose strength of will helped Illinois to championships, could never attain the personal glory in college that he did through four straight years at Peoria Manual high school. The list of similar players is too long to mention, and I and others have already forgotten many of their names.

But now consider some of the late-bloomers who grew far beyond their high school rankings. On a national level, who better than the "Admiral" David Robinson to use as an example. He entered the Naval Academy less than the maximum height of 6'-6" after high school and then proceeded to grow into a 7-footer with All-Pro ability. He is a perfect example of a late bloomer, but there are many others.

Shaquille O'Neal was not well known in high school, having followed his Army father to several military base schools. It took him a long while to grow into his body and refine his skills. Illinois was second on his list of college choices, in part because we were one of the few schools to know about him. But he soon developed into a "man among boys" while at LSU and is now enjoying a long pro career.

Consider these other names as well: Brian Cardinal, Jack Sikma, Doug Collins, Dwayne Wade, Tim Hardaway, Darrell Walker, Nazr Mohammed, David Booth, Michael Finley, Troy Hudson, Devin Harris, Emeka Okafor, and A. J. Guyton. These are just a few off the top of my head who exploded during college. Needless to say, the "gurus" missed on them. And don't forget Bruce Weber's work with "unknown" post players at Purdue. The Boilermakers won many games with late-blooming, hard workers like Jim "Muscle Beach" Rowinski, Steve Scheffler, and Brad Miller.

Among past Illini, the list is vast and special. It includes Kevin Turner, Kendall Gill, Ron Dunlap, Dave Scholz, Rick Schmidt, Neil Bresnahan, Perry Range, George Montgomery, Ken Norman, Quin Richardson, Tony Wysinger, and Matt Heldman. Not all of these fine players made it to the NBA, but they all developed later in their lives and aided the Illini to many victories despite their lesser-known high school status. And among present and future Illini basketball players, we must include people like James Augustine, Warren Carter, Brian Randle, Calvin Brock and Jamar Smith in this discussion because they appear to be players who will be much better by the time they are seniors than they are right now.

The exact same situation exists in football. In fact, it is even more likely to see late developers in football simply because of all the physical requirements necessary to compete against 22-year old college seniors on the field. High school All-American offensive lineman Tony Pape of Hinsdale Central and Michigan was drafted two rounds later than Rantoul's and Illinois' Sean Bubin in this past NFL draft. Pape was probably more fully developed than Bubin out of high school but leveled off thereafter, while Bubin continued to work and improve to the point he passed Pape in pro potential.

One need look no farther than Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre to see a late bloomer in action. Brett was not even allowed to pass by his father coach in high school, so no one ranked him highly as a quarterback. He was not recruited by the "elite" schools, but the pros had no trouble finding him when his time had come to be drafted. And Favre continued a long line of "unknown" quarterbacks in Green Bay, including Bart Starr and Ron Macejewski. It is a good thing for the Packers that they didn't take the word of high school recruiting gurus when selecting their quarterbacks.

You can look at every pro team and find numerous other examples of successful late bloomers and numerous failures among the early developers. Marshall Faulk of the Colts was lightly recruited out of high school, and his San Diego State coaches actually expected him to play defensive back. That is, until the first day of practice his freshman year when he began to dominate as a running back. Some of you might not remember Mike Kenn of Evanston, Michigan and the Falcons, but he was a slender 6'-6" offensive lineman that Illini coaches thought was too skinny to be recruited. He became an athletic, 300 pound All-Pro. The list goes on and on.

For the Illini, our past history is dominated by late developers. Bobby Mitchell, one of the greatest wide receivers in pro football history with the Redskins, was a reserve halfback at Illinois until his senior year. Tony Eason was a lightly recruited quarterback out of California who eventually played in the Super Bowl. Kevin Hardy was just a young, developing athlete out of Evansville, Indiana, without a position when the Illini recruited him. And yet he and Chicago Mt. Carmel's Simeon Rice, a slender defensive tackle who wanted to be a running back and was a recruiting after-thought, became the second and third draft picks in one NFL draft.

Allow me to name just a few more of the many Illini late-bloomers, the presence of whom raised the level of Illini play during their years at the school (in no particular order): Dave Wilson, Fred Wakefield, Howard Griffith, Michael Dean, Walter Young, Greg Lewis, Aaron Moorehead, Larry McCarren, Doug Dieken, Jon Gustaffson, Mark Zitnik, Mike Poloskey, Adam Lingner, Ed Brady, Calvin Thomas, and Don Thorp.

Also, add to that list the following: Jason Verduzco, Johnny Johnson, Jack Squirek, Chris Green, Ron Ferrari, MIke Suarez, Shawn Wax, Mel Agee, Darrick Brownlow, Kameno Bell, Filmel Johnson, Ken Dilger, Scott Turner, Jason Dulick, Matt Cushing, J. P. Machado, Tony Pashos, Josh Whitman, Jameel Cook, Ryan and Tom Schau, and David Diehl. Many of these players made it to the NFL, and all helped the Illini win games they could not have won without them.

On our present football team, players such as Mike O'Brien, Jason Davis, Melvin Bryant, Jim LaBonte, Kendrick Jones, DaJuan Warren, Chris Norwell, J. Leman, Alan Ball, Arthur Boyd, J.J. Simmons, and Travis Williams are just a few with excellent improvement potential. Those who saw O'Brien as a freshman questioned why he was recruited because of his slender stature. That is, until they saw his running speed and natural aggressiveness. As a 6th year senior, he now has pro potential.

I believe Illinois has no choice but to recruit the late-bloomers for both basketball and football, and I think we are better off anyway. The key is to find those special players who have the inner drive to go with growth potential and athleticism who can continue to develop during their college years. Mistakes will be made, but the better our coaches are at finding and recruiting these players, the better off we will be.

Yes, I can hear some of our fans giving long explanations on why they will be mad if we don't have a top-rated class, and they won't be entirely wrong. After all, we are still like Avis trying harder not to play second fiddle to Hertz, and we would like to be Hertz instead. But even among the upper echelon recruits, it is important we study them well enough to know they have not already reached their maximum potential. High School rankings are not enough. We must project their futures before committing scholarship aid to them.

Late-bloomers must have other traits of course. They must be coachable, they must be willing occasionally to give up personal glory for the betterment of the team, they must get along well with the other players on the team and with their coaches, and they must be willing to work hard throughout their college careers to grow and improve. They must not be so full of themselves, so enamored with their high school rankings, that they expect a free ride in college.

Homewood-Flossmoor's Julian Wright may be a top 25 basketball player, but he has in no way reached his vast potential. And that is at least partly due to the fact he is still learning how best to utilize all his athleticism while still playing good defense, making good passes, shooting consistent jumpers and setting up teammates for easy baskets. Of course, he is a rare player indeed. He is exactly the type of player we should recruit. If some such players are not rated quite as highly while in high school, then let's have the patience to reevaluate their ratings once they complete college. That is the real test.

What we really want is victories and championships. If we can combine quality athletes with developmental potential and quality coaching, we can become the elite school that can attract the finest recruits. But even then, we will need to recruit as many late-bloomers as possible. IMHO

Go Illini!

Corrections/Additions from last week's column: Several Illiniboard readers shared their thoughts with me in response to my column last week on the 1961-1962 recruiting classes. I thank them for their time. I was reminded that Jim Grabowski graduated from Chicago Taft high school, not Lane Tech. I apologize for the error. I was also reminded that the lineman who transferred to Western Illinois and had a fine career was Wayne DeSutter. In addition, the Eldorado All-State halfback was Les Feuquay. Two other running backs on the 1962 freshman team were Wayne Strauch and Urbana's diminutive Dave Crouch.

Please feel free to discuss this column on the message boards with other Illini fans, or if you have a specific question for Illinisports, he can be reached via e-mail at

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