Assistant coach Carl Meyer was a recruiting star for Bob Blackman at Illinois. He brought in a number of quality athletes in his six years on campus through hard work and attention to detail. He recently reminisced about his experiences.
"I recruited North, North Suburban and West Chicago. In other words, I went out to the East-West toll road."
Meyer had no problem naming his top recruits, starting with an All-American linebacker from Willowbrook.
"Tom Hicks has to be number one. He started for the Bears a number of years. One guy who really didn't get a lot of recognition was Jeff Stewart. Jeff was a hotshot quarterback for Elk Grove. But he came here and tore up an elbow, which damaged his throwing. So we moved him to wide receiver.
"And then he had one of the most severe hamstring tears our people had ever seen. That took care of his playing career. But everybody wanted him including Notre Dame and Michigan.
"Kevin Pancratz and Marty Friel were tremendous players. Friel became more than I expected because he had exceptional hands and was a tough guy. He was a captain. Jerry Finis became an All Big 10 discus champion two years in a row and was a starter for two or three years.
"Another guy who wasn't well known or recruited heavily was Stu Levenick. Stu's mother encouraged him to knock on my door because he was a quarterback in high school at Washington, a suburb of Peoria.
"We moved him to tight end, and he ended up starting for the next three years, one year at center, one year at guard, and one year at tackle. The tackle year, he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts. He was captain and All Big 10. He's now one of five vice presidents at Caterpillar and has done very well."
Another top Meyer recruit was tight end Joe Smalzer out of Chicago Heights Bloom. It was the 6'-6" Smalzer who made the great endzone catch with one foot inbounds that might have changed the outcome of the 1974 Michigan game had there been instant replay.
"I was recruiting Joe Smalzer for Dartmouth because Joe had excellent grades. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and became quite the player as a tight end. He was All Big 10 as well."
Who was the top player Meyer lost during his recruiting battles? None other than Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State. Griffin had made an official visit to Illinois and may have been leaning that direction when OSU swept in at the last minute and convinced him to stay home. Recruiting rules were different back then.
"When we first came here, that's when you signed first a Big 10 Letter of Intent, and then you signed the National Letter Of Intent, which I think was around the first of May. So you had to recruit them twice. I think there was only one or two years of that, and then they decided it would be a one-time thing."
Many rules changes ended up helping the rich more than the poor. Those like Illinois who wanted to catch up with the top programs needed interaction with recruits so they could befriend them and even the playing field. Without it, the "elite" schools could recruit more on reputation and didn't have to work as hard. Present Illini coach Ron Zook has been limited in his recruiting by similar rules changes.
"When we first came on board, I think we had unlimited contacts. That was good because we needed to outhustle people. I didn't mind that. Then later you were limited to three or five contacts. I don't think it ever got more than five. They say it was cost-cutting, but it really wasn't. It was just kind of getting things under control.
"There's no question it helps the elite schools more. If I go in there and make a favorable impression a couple of times, a guy at Iowa State is really gonna have to bust it to keep up. Or, a guy like Jim Tressel comes in, that makes it tough for us."
Bob Blackman and his staff created much more depth for their program by giving out a large number of scholarships one year. That rule was changed also.
"In 1973, we gave out 45 scholarships. That was the last year you could mix and match and do some things. The next year, I think the limit went to 28 or 30. And I think it's stayed in the 25 range since."
There were three top recruiters on Blackman's staff. Meyer was one, and he remembers the other two.
"John Jackson was a very good recruiter. He was very sincere and worked hard. Gary Golden was good. Golden and Jackson had inroads in New Jersey particularly. They were very successful there.
"Gary brought in John Difeliciantonio out of Philadelphia. And then Jackson also had an 'in' in Detroit. He got Mike Gow who became All Big 10. He was kind of a frail guy. He wasn't real thick and heavy."
Zook recruits the state of Ohio extensively these days. Meyer would have loved that, but Illinois didn't recruit Ohio back in the 1970's.
"I remember back when I was a high school coach in Ohio. Illinois had no presence at all in that state. Northwestern had a presence there, Purdue had some presence, but Illinois had no presence. I don't know why it was like that. But now, Illinois has brought in 9-10 kids from Ohio, and I find that significant."
As tough as it was for Meyer to recruit back in his day, he believes it would be much harder for him now.
"I think the Internet has changed things dramatically. There are all kinds of stories out there. It's really difficult. There's people out there that plant stories just to see what the reaction is. They do it in the public relations world. They used to say, 'they run the flag up to see how much wind's out there.'"
Meyer has had a successful life, and he looks back on his Illinois days with fondness. He and the other members of Bob Blackman's staff had major barriers to overcome, but they made progress that gave Illini fans hope again after some tough years.