Howard's Love For Illini Inspires Recruits

Fighting Illini basketball recruiting is on a major upswing. Four top athletes are ready to sign scholarship tenders next month, and three top 30 players are already committed for enrollment in 2010. Coincidently or not, recruiting began to snowball about the same time Jerrance Howard joined the coaching staff.

Coach Bruce Weber and his entire staff share the recruiting responsibilities, and they already had 2010 star Jereme Richmond in the fold when Howard joined the staff. They laid the groundwork, and Jerrance helped them get over the top with fellow Peoria star D. J. Richardson. Once D. J. committed, others wanted to join the fun.

The captain of the 2004-2005 team, Jerrance always wanted to return to his alma mater. After coaching stints at Texas A & M and Kentucky, he jumped at the chance to join Weber's coaching staff last fall.

"It's a good feeling to be back here coaching on staff. I can sell this place because of personal experience. It comes from within, from the heart. With Coach Weber being the coach he is, the program we have, and the facilities, it's an easy job to sell. The University of Illinois sells itself."

Howard has a passion for Illini basketball, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He has made inroads in Chicago recruiting circles, an area that always produces top players but hasn't always warmed to the UI. Chicago coaches and players seem comfortable with Jerrance.

"I think what really helps me, I played with a guy named Larry Butler, who's a Chicago guy of one the best AAU teams in the last 15 years. And I played with a lot of guys and know a lot of Chicago coaches. There wasn't any bad blood."

Howard's modesty belies a strong work ethic in the mold of Illini football coach Ron Zook.

"I just came with the approach to develop personal relationships, not only with the high school coach, but with the principal, the counselor, the janitor. Every time I go to a school up there, I make my rounds. Just being more personal with more people than just the high school coach."

The big reunion held recently at the Assembly Hall was a major boon to basketball recruiting. Watching former stars from the famous 1989 and 2005 teams had an impact both on prospective recruits and their families.

"That was really bigtime. That set off this year. What that did was not so much for the kids but the parents. The parents grew up watching Kenny Battle, Steve Bardo and that '89 team. And Johnny "Red" Kerr. That goes a long way with the family members.

"That's something else I do. I try to find out who's gonna have the most pop with the kid, the one who helps make the decision for the kid. I recruit them as hard or harder than the kid."

Jerrance was heavily involved in bringing an impressive group of prospects for the "World's Biggest Basketball Practice" which followed the Homecoming football game. Seniors Brandon Paul and Richardson were on official visits, and fellow senior commitment Joseph Bertrand came as well.

They were joined by 2010 commits Crandall Head, Meyers Leonard and Richmond. Chicago stars Wayne Blackshear, Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw and several other handsome prospects kept a close eye on everything. Jerrance receives credit for helping gather these athletes together, but he is quick to credit Illinois' committed prospects as well.

"The guys will tell you, our committed players have been our best access to recruiting. They get on the phone with guys, they're on myspace, they're emailing, texting, why they should get onboard.

"That's why it's so important to recruit and take care of the guys you have committed. Your current players and the guys you've got committed. If you take care of them, they're gonna pass it on, and it's contagious. They want to play with them, so it's a good deal.

"Our commits want to do it. They want to play with elite players. You don't have to pull their leg and bug them. They call me to ask how is this guy or that guy, do we want him. 'Who do you want me to call?' So it's a two way street, and it's a good feeling."

Also present Saturday were Mac Irvin Fire AAU team members plus their coaching staff. Getting this Chicago group interested in a vist was a major coup for the Illini staff. With so many players on campus at one time, it was important no one was neglected during their stay.

"I was really nervous Friday night because it could have blown up in our face if we didn't handle it the right way. But our staff, Coach Weber, did a great job of showing everybody equal attention."

While the coaches spent time with their young prospects on one-day visits, Richardson and Paul were there for the whole weekend. So Howard is quick to point out the role the present Illini team plays during recruiting.

"Another good thing, I've got to give credit to our players for helping entertain the guys we have committed. They kept guys happy and on the right track during their visits."

Jerrance Howard is not only a recruiter but shares coaching and scouting responsibilities as well. He doesn't want fans to overlook the present squad as they dream of future NCAA Championships. The Illini have endured setbacks the last couple years, but Howard believes they are now back on the right track.

"You have to go through the hard times in order to grow. I don't think it could get any worse than it did last year. The guys really don't want to have that feeling again this year. They're getting better and working harder. The interest is really at a high level."

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