Through the Trifocals

Attention all prospective Illini football recruits, your families and friends. If you have ever had any interest in the University of Illinois, then Illinisports reminds you of your opportunities at Illinois and shares a likely timetable of upcoming events that may affect your choice of colleges in this column.

This is a difficult time for everyone concerned. Coaching turmoil can have just as confusing and frustrating an impact on prospective recruits as it does on our current team, administration and fans. I have no contacts within the University of Illinois Division of Athletics, but I have lived through several coaching transitions. As such, I can shed some light regarding the likely timing of upcoming events and Illini prospects for the future. So I am writing this column to appeal directly to prospective Illini football recruits, their families and friends.

First of all, I hope all recruits understand why they may not have received much love from the UI lately. It is always extremely difficult for a coaching staff burdened by losing seasons and pressure against their jobs to remain optimistic and enthusiastic about their recruiting efforts. It is hard to brag to recruits about the future when the future is uncertain. It can be tough even to pick up the phone as one ponders exactly what to say that will sound sellable to a recruit. And our coaches' need to prepare the present team to manufacture some wins becomes so immense they may simply run out of time to make those calls and contacts.

In the meantime, you are getting bombarded by opportunists who see the Illini faltering and wish to steal you away. They may redouble their efforts to remind you of the turmoil and how much better off you might be going to their school instead. They will point out the present problems, hoping you will make a commitment to them before you have the chance to meet the new coaching staff at Illinois and experience the new vision for the future.

Please, if you have ever felt even the most minimal attraction to the University of Ilinois sometime in the past, then I offer you some information that can be beneficial for you. I ask you to keep an open mind and delay any permanent commitments until after you have had the chance to see who is hired at Illinois and get acquainted with him. This could be one of the most important decisions of your adult life, so it is wise to keep all your options open. I ask you to ponder some facts that might have bearing on your decision.

First of all, U of I Athletic Director Ron Guenther has a marvelous track record for hiring top-flight coaches for a variety of sports. His tendency is to look for superstars, and he has been highly successful at attracting quality people because he is a quality person. Guenther is known as someone who cares about his coaches and works with them to help them succeed. His outstanding reputation precedes him, giving him an edge against the competition.

Ron Guenther has hired such people as Craig Tiley, who's tennis team won a National Championship this last year and had the nation's longest-ever tennis winning streak; Mark Johnson, who has one of the top five wrestling programs in the country and is a contender for this year's National Championship; Janet Rayfield, who's women's soccer team is now in the Elite Eight in only its eighth year of operation; softball's Terri Sullivan, who has also been nationally ranked and made Illinois competitive immediately upon starting that program; Kathy Harvey, who's women's cross country team is in the top 20 in the country in only her second year (the first time ever for that program).

Also Mike Small, who has two second place Big 10 finishes in just three years as golf coach and who was on the leaderboard of the Western Open on the final day of play this year; Don Harden, who has helped Illini volleyball back into national prominence and ended defending National Champion Southern Cal's 52 match winning streak this fall; Wayne Angel, who has already made vast improvement in the men's track team in his first year and shows promise for future greatness; and three men's basketball coaches, Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber, all of whom won Big 10 Championships at Illinois and remain stars in the business.

The only two coaches hired by Ron Guenther who have not kept the Fighting Illini at the top of their sports are Theresa Grentz in women's basketball and Ron Turner in football. But Guenther made a major hiring coup when he lured Grentz, who is a Hall of Fame and former USA Olympic coach, away from Rutgers. Grentz made Illinois competitive immediately. She has had some down years more recently, but she was still considered a super hire at the time. And we all know that Ron Turner is an outstanding football mind and wonderful human being. It hasn't worked out for him as well as hoped, but he did lead Illinois to an undisputed Big 10 Championship and BCS bowl appearance.

Thus, expect Guenther to go for a superstar in football now. Please remember he is a former football player himself, and he wants more than anything to retire with the Illini football program on the upswing. He will not rest until he finds the right person for the job. If he cannot find a present head coach with a proven track record of success at other schools, he will attract a quality individual who is ready to break out on the national level. I don't say this because I am a lifelong Illini fan, although I admit to some bias, but because it is Ron Guenther's standard operating procedure.

And despite a losing record recently, Illini football is showing signs it has the foundation for future success. Most of this year's team is young; they will continue to grow and improve. And there are some excellent freshmen being redshirted this year. If the new coach can add some quality athletes to fill a few obvious weak spots, this team can be a winner in the near future.

Anyone who has played sports knows that one plays better with confidence. Winning is contagious, and the confidence from winning allows one's body to relax and become more explosive and athletic. In contrast, losing deflates confidence. Frequent losing makes one's body tighten up as he struggles to make himself play better and win. It is not hard to empathize with Illinois' present situation and to understand how little difference there actually is between winning and losing.

The players on the present Illini team have shown potential that can be enhanced greatly with some additional success and the confidence that evolves from it. The experiences from this year, combined with the maturity of another year's growth and physical development, will make us better prepared for the wars on the 2005 football field. Don't be surprised if a new coach coming in is competitive immediately. This program is NOT at rock bottom.

You may not get this impression by reading Internet message boards, reading or listening to the sports media, or talking to coaches from other universities. But please remember several things. One, Illini fans are frustrated by losing because we know we have been good in the past and can be great in the future. Some allow their frustrations to pour out on the message boards as they vent their more negative energies anonymously. Thus they may, in the heat of the moment, say things that cast a shadow on the Illini football program. Some of these remarks may be justified, but some definitely are not. Please try to understand how this might happen and not let the more extreme remarks influence you against the University of Illinois.

Secondly, some of the people you read on message boards are not Illini fans but are trying to help their own favorite teams by sabotaging Illini message boards and the Illini program in general. Can you be sure you are listening to an Illini person who has true understanding of the innerworkings of the program? If not, then it is wise to take what is said with a grain of salt. Some schools may actually hire people to serve as counterintelligence agents. Always ask yourself if the person talking has an ulterior agenda.

This philosophy should also hold true when listening to the media "experts" who bombard you with their opinions, including this writer. Some media types may have a pro-Illinois bias, but some have agendas designed to harm Illinois. I know one writer, an Illinois alum, who has spent much of his professional career planting negative thoughs about Illinois through indirect means in his columns. Supposedly, he is seeking revenge because he felt slighted by his Alma Mater. Another writer favors a school that is one of Illinois' competitors and helps that school by trying to hurt Illinois at every turn.

And quite common these days, some media pundits simply make their living by bashing anyone and everyone. Controversy sells, and they benefit by stirring up the emotions of their listeners. It is always helpful to question all media sources regarding their possible agenda or bias. Think for yourselves, and these people cannot influence you unduly.

Of course, we cannot exclude opposing coaches when discussing negative perceptions of the Illini. Football is big business, and coaches are under tremendous pressure to win. They may resort to all sorts of negative recruiting, from subtle rumormongering to direct deceit. And some will take Internet message board comments out of context to present to a prospective recruit. They may try to convince you Illinois fans don't like you or don't want you. Or they may try to paint a picture of the Illinois program so dour that you might not wish to consider Illinois. No matter how much you like and respect a coach, please remember this: a person who has much positive to sell about his own program doesn't NEED to attack an opponent. Negative recruiting is an act of desperation and not proof of quality.

So what happens now? There is a waiting period that must be followed as part of Affirmative Action guidelines. This period begins once the coaching position is advertised officially. There are times when a school needing a quick hire can appeal for a shortened waiting period, but this is not guaranteed at the time of this writing. In addition, some coaches have to stay with their present programs until after their seasons are completed and may request a delay in announcing their move. Thus, it may take a month or more to get a new coach named. Patience is essential for all concerned at this time.

During this delay rumors will fly, but most of them will have no basis in fact. If you read the Internet forums, you will be subject to wild speculations. I advise you to not get caught up emotionally in these. After all, Illini fans are hungry for a winner, and they grow more impatient as each day passes. They each have their own ideas as to who might be a viable candidate and who might be a lemon. Many will be called, but only one will be chosen.

What is most important right now is for those athletes who have been recruited or hope to be recruited by the Illini to understand they are not being forgotten, even if they have not heard from the UI for awhile. Those who have already accepted scholarships will be contacted as soon as a new coach is named. And the new coach will be given our current recruiting lists and will initiate contact as soon as he and his staff get settled.

In most cases in the past, those who have been promised scholarships and have committed to the UI by the departing coach have had their promises reconfirmed by the new staff. I cannot guarantee that will happen this time, but that is what usually occurs. Of course, you will wish to meet the new coaching staff on your official visit to campus and be given the right to back out of your commitment if you do not feel compatible with the current situation. You may feel ill at ease right now, but these events will occur long before the signing date, so any frustrations you feel right now will likely be temporary.

For everyone else, the new coaching staff will need time to get organized and begin evaluating recruiting tape. Please don't feel slighted if you do not hear from the new staff for awhile, simply because they will need time to get organized and settled into their new jobs. They will call you as soon as they can. In the meantime, it is important that you remain patient and allow the new staff to present its case to you before you eliminate the Illini from your list of possible college destinations.

Some will undoubtedly accept other schools' scholarship offers. However, I request that you do this only if you are absolutely convinced that other school is the right one for you. But if you have any interest or loyalty in the Illini, I encourage you to remain uncommitted until you have a chance to discuss your situation with the new staff. If after that time you wish to matriculate elsewhere, at least you will know you made a complete evaluation.

Recruits, your college years will build a foundation for your adult life. Make sure you end up with the school and football program that most meets your needs, not just now but for the long-term future. If your dream is to attend some school besides Illinois, then go with the blessing of the entire University of Illinois community. But if you are still open to what Illinois has to offer, then please don't let short-term turmoil make you fear the unknown.

After all, Illinois WILL WIN in the future, and it will always be one of the outstanding universities in the country. The present unknowns will soon be resolved, making this future easier to visualize. We are looking for a few good men, and we will find them. Will you be among them?

Go Illini!!!

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