Jerrance Howard is a young, enthusiastic former Illinois basketball player who was added to Bruce Weber's staff two years ago to serve as an assistant coach and recruiter. He has been given credit for helping upgrade Illini recruiting, and he has definitely served as a catalyst for renewed recruiting momentum.
But he credits a philosophical change for the improvement. Making contact with younger kids has allowed Illini coaches to get a foot in the door before these future superstars are influenced to look elsewhere.
"The recruiting game has changed," Howard explains. "Kids are committing coming into high school as freshmen, so it's real important to get guys early."
During evaluation periods, Illini coaches are beating the bushes looking for talent. Their travels are likely to take them to junior high school games and AAU events for youngsters as well as venues for older high school players.
This philosophical change is responsible for early commitments from top players Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, Meyers Leonard, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. And the Illini are in excellent position for three superstar freshmen from the Chicago area.
It takes time to develop proper relationships, so the recruitment of younger players gives Illini coaches a chance to befriend the right people.
"When I try to recruit a kid, I try to build a personal relationship with the grandmother, the parents, the girl friend, and best friends. That's something that comes with it. The people who figure out how to communicate with those people the best are the ones that are pretty good in this business."
With coaches now banned from watching players during the spring AAU season, it is difficult to do true evaluations of players during the brief July AAU season. Evaluations must be completed throughout the school year. By July, the coaches spend most of their time running from one event, one gym to another in the hope of being seen by their top prospects.
"I think it's real important that you do your research before the summer gets here because with April being cut off, your time is limited. It's real important when we go out to these high schools that we really research and evaluate the guys we want. Once we figure out, throughout the year, the guys we want, we follow up in the summertime and sit on them.
"Our philosophy of starting early, you've got to sit on those babies. Checking out kids at an earlier age makes it a lot easier to evaluate in the summer."
Coaches see tons of players during the AAU circuit, but in most cases they are hopelessly behind recruiting them if they have not developed relationships with them ahead of time. Of course, that doesn't mean you give up should you find a gem you think you must have.
"If you see a guy, you can't just throw in the towel and not try, you've still got to make that attempt. Try to get in the mix and ride it out. Some crazy things happen in this crazy game, so you at least need to give yourself a chance to get involved with a kid."
Illinois' first priority is players from the state of Illinois. They are the easiest to evaluate, are the most likely to have an interest in the program, and it is quicker and cheaper to travel to their games.
"You always want to recruit the best players in the state and the country. If the state's down, you really don't have a choice but to look elsewhere. But I think over the years there's enough basketball players in the state of Illinois that's good enough to play at this level."
Of course, Howard is ambitious and wants to take advantage of the Illini's prestige to forge relationships in more distant locales to supplement their yearly in-state haul.
"I know here we have done a good job in-state. What I want to do is get out of the state a little bit. We're still taking care of home, but we're one of the elite basketball programs in the country. Why not? The kids we recruit from out of state reach out to us and meet us halfway. We follow up right away.
"Our interest is in a lot of kids in California and Las Vegas, and then I've spent some time in Alabama. Really, not a specific area but specific kids. Our state is our biggest priority and always will be, especially in the Chicago area. But I think since we've had success, it's time to branch out a little bit."
Texas is also a state of interest to Howard since he worked on Billy Gillispie's staff at Texas A & M and developed relationships there. Is it harder to recruit players from places like Texas?
"Yes and no. It depends on the kid. Some kids want to get out of the state and some that want to stay home. When you go out of state, you need to do your research. When I go to places like Texas or Alabama, I know the kid is interested in us as well. Sometimes, you may take a gamble and go on faith and try to get involved.
"In Texas, there's a lot of high schools and a lot of players. So if you get a guy that wants to leave, you can definitely jump on him. Then, it definitely helps when you have Deron Williams, who's an NBA All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist who comes from Texas."
It used to be possible to travel to any part of the country for a player that fills a specific need. A small handful of schools can still do that, but most simply cannot make up enough ground on a player unless they have a specific connection with him ahead of time.
"No, it's far from that. One, you have to have a relationship with who's controlling the kid. And that kid has to have an interest in you too. So it's not as easy as it seems.
"You just have to continue to work and reach out to people, make your phone calls, get on the Internet to see who's available. And also the most important thing, who's your competition? What do you have to sell to separate yourself from other schools?"
There are many pitfalls to recruiting. Even in the absence of schools willing to cheat for players, there are plenty of barriers a recruiter must overcome to sign a talented student athlete. For the Illini right now, negative recruiting tops the list.
"Right now, you have people out there, fans and other people, who are talking about how many players we have. But the thing to sell is that every top team in the country has players.
"People say we have a lot of guards, so why do you go to Illinois when they've got three guards here and maybe two coming in. The negative recruiting is the biggest thing right now. But that's the business, and it's never gonna stop. But that's a good problem to have if people say you have too many players and guards."
Of course, some players are controlled by outside influences eager to make a profit off their involvement. They befriend players, buy them things to make them dependent, and then try to tell them where to go to school, when to turn pro, etc. Howard can't do anything about those cases, so he looks for players who have strong parental support and don't fall into that trap.
"Sometimes you recruit kids that want to come here, but they're not making their decision. They have other people making their decisions, whether they're right, wrong or indifferent. I think that's something that's part of the job."
Players the Illini are recruiting now watched the great 2004-05 team lead by Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head when they were in grade school and junior high. That gave them a strong first impression of Weber and the Illinois program.
"Exactly. And that's where it starts. We could recruit our butts off every day, but you've got to win. What I've learned since I've been coaching, your top recruiters are your players.
"You've got to take care of those guys, making sure they're successful off the court. We have one of the best percentages in graduation rates here. You've got to make sure they get better, that they're happy, that they continue to grow as a person and as a player. It's huge for our kids to be successful because the younger generation is looking up to see what they're doing and where they end up at."
Howard agrees the present freshman class at Illinois could become the pied pipers for teams four and five years from now. D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey have the talent and work ethic to be a foundation for great teams in the next few years. They could make a favorable impression on the next generation.
"And they're good kids. They have no ego. They're not cocky, they come from strong family backgrounds. That's what I like about it because in recruiting, you can be recruiting the most talented kid, and he could be a jerk and not fit into your program. Here, we get kids that go both ways, on and off the court."