If one believes all the fear-driven rants on internet message boards, Illinois football recruiting is in the tank and all hope is lost. According to coach Ron Zook, nothing could be further from the truth.
"Our recruiting is gonna be fine. We've just got to stay the course and do the things we've done since we've been here."
Competitors love to use doomsday messages as leverage with top recruits. It can be hard to neutralize the negativity.
"Recruiting still comes down to people. Every place has got problems. There is no Utopia. Where we get concerned about recruiting is all the negative recruiting. He who lives in a glass house shouldn't throw stones. But that's part of it. That's the way they do it."
After two straight seasons with losing records, the Illini are vulnerable to the naysayers. But the graduating senior class is a small one, so most of the talent is returning next year. There are reasons for optimism.
"We're not changing. Nothing has changed from the way we've been doing things since I've been here. People think this thing's broke. It's not broke. If we're climbing Mt. Everest, we're at camp 4 and not base camp. We need another surge to get to the summit, and we're gonna do it.
"People think we're starting over. We're not starting over. We have a pretty good group of players on this football team now. If, God forbid, we didn't get a soul, we'd be fine."
Teams that are bragging now may be crying next year. Recruits need to look at the bigger picture to have a better idea what to look for when selecting a school they will attend for the next 4-5 years of their lives.
"People are always gonna point out the negative. Everybody paints this pretty picture. But wherever you go, no matter what they promise you, there's gonna be tough days. When it rains, that picture is gonna run. So you'd better go where the people are, make sure they're the kind of people who will be there for you when you have tough days.
"I can't fight what people say. If people want to believe it, they believe it. If they don't, they don't. When people get on campus, they get around our people, then they know. There's problems everywhere.
"All those people who are negative recruiting, they've got the same kinds of problems. It's just a matter of when they have them. I can't do anything about what people say. If parents believe it and kids believe it, then they'll probably be in for a rude awakening.
"You better evaluate the people and players that you're gonna be around. Make sure those are the kind of people that you want to be around. It's funny how people negatively recruit about our guys, and we've been fortunate to have less problems than most people have. But they turn it the other way.
"We've got enough things to sell. I'm not gonna talk about another school. I know if these other schools are gonna talk about me, they're gonna talk about you. So recruits need to look at that kind of stuff too."
Rivals who use a pro style offense are criticizing spread offenses like at Illinois as not being conducive to earning a fat pro contract. The state of Illinois has two exceptional receivers in the senior class this year. One committed to Tennessee and the other USC, both pro style offenses. Zook disagrees strenuously.
"The people who talk about a pro style offense really don't have any idea. First of all, pro style offenses have only two receivers on the field. If I was a receiver, I'd like to go to a place where there's four or five receivers on the field rather than two or three."
According to Zook, the NFL does not prefer players from pro style attacks.
"That is so whitewash. If you're a good player, you're gonna play. It doesn't make any difference what offense you're in. Players play, and it makes no difference where you go. It's funny how people kind of buy into that stuff. They should look at the guys who are in the NFL. See what programs they came from."
Zook is Illinois' best recruiter. It undoubtedly hurt the program when the NCAA barred head coaches from going out on the road for May evaluations. While he couldn't talk to the players at that time, he could learn more about their support system and the type of student and citizen they were. He also couldn't let people see his charismatic personality. He has compensated as best as possible.
"It's hard from the standpoint you don't get a chance to know their deal. That's part of the process now. We've still got to do our job. Our assistant coaches have got to do their job. And when I'm allowed to, I've got to get on the phone and talk to them."
Athletic Director Ron Guenther gave a public statement of support for Zook during the season. That undoubtedly helped the recruiting effort as opponents were claiming Zook would be fired at the end of the season.
"That's just for people who negatively recruit. If people continue to believe what they hear, they're gonna be in for a rude awakening when they get to that place."
Zook looks forward to the day he can finally get out on the road and meet the players and their families face to face. He is confident he will be able to overcome some if not all the negativity once he demonstrates his sincerity, honesty and caring. He is a player's coach, and that goes a long way in the recruiting game.
In the meantime, he wants Illini Nation to know hope is not lost. He and his staff are working hard to overcome any barriers that exist, and he is confident he will bring in a talented recruiting class again this year.
"We've got a lot of things to sell here. What we've got to do is go out and do the same things we've done since we've been here. It's a lot easier to recruit now than it was when we first got here."