I’m frustrated…the Illini are in training camp and I can’t be there to watch and to make informed observations
so I decided to take a little different path and write about something that has always bothered me about Illini football. Keeping the players at home, or the lack, thereof.
Every Illini fan is used to the mantra “lock down the borders”….
We all think that, don’t we? In basketball for sure, because of the rich traditions and wealth of talent that the State of Illinois has, it is easy to envision the Fighting Illini to be a national power every single year if the basketball coaches can just keep the kids home. The thought is less pervasive in football, because, you know, basketball is king in Illinois, but, still, we see great high school football players leave the state, choosing to go somewhere else to continue their playing careers in college.
As much as we Illini fans love our beloved flagship university, there are legitimate reasons why some kids would like to attend school elsewhere:
*Failed to get admission from the University of Illinois. UI has high standards, higher than the NCAA minimums, and some student-athletes just can’t get in. Many times in the past I have thought about what might happen if UI admissions would ease up just a bit, or if, perhaps, each sport could get just a few exceptions every year. Can’t hurt, right? I mean, a Big Ten member institution provides their student-athletes with all kinds of advantages in securing positive academic outcomes. Early and preferential scheduling, virtually unlimited tutoring, the best available nutrition, a data-base of athletics-friendly faculty, etc…
Other schools “North Carolina” win national championships with bogus academic departments and classes, and the NCAA looks the other way…..oh never mind, don’t get me started.
Back to the discussion. We should all be proud of the rigorous standards set by the University of Illinois. Other schools have high standards, as well. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame….and there are plenty of well qualified students to come to UI to be excellent athletes. There will never be any support for lowering admission standards in Champaign, nor should there be. But the fact remains that the Fighting Illini are waging an unfair battle in the recruitment of certain kids.
*Wants to go somewhere warm. It gets cold in Champaign, and it stays cold and gray for much of the school year. I get it. I moved away from Illinois to sunny, humid South Florida, and many kids want to go play and live in a warmer climate. This argument can go both ways. Some kids from the deep south want to move up north because they can escape the suffocating heat that they have to practice and play in. I get that, too. I coached 5 years of high school football in Florida and it can be dangerously hot, humid, and really ugly. No one in Illinois should complain about practicing when it’s 90 degrees. I covered high school football in Arizona for 2 years as well, where kids are practicing in 98 degree weather BEFORE THE SUN RISES and where early and mid season games routinely kick off with temps well above 100 degrees.
*Wants to play in front of the big crowds. Ouch. This one stings. A true indictment of US, the fans of the Fighting Illini. Granted, the football program has had many, many more downs than ups, and Memorial Stadium has a weird layout. The Horseshoe is about 40 yards away from the back of the end zone on the south side, and don’t even get me started on the North End Zone seating, which is universally seen as awful, and even more awful of a place to stick the students….
All that being said, when you’re an impressionable 16 or 17 year old kid and wealthy grown men are swooning over your every move and tweet, you’re probably not closing your eyes and dreaming of playing in front of 30,000 empty seats on a cold and windy day in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois. I know that back in the day when I was a lightly recruited placekicker and punter from Beardstown (I got a couple dozen letters and got to take 3 visits to small colleges before ultimately walking on at Illinois State) my visions were of making the game winning kick in front of 100,000 fans at the Big House. And one of the letters I got was from Bo Schembechler at Michigan. If there would have been the reality of a scholarship playing for Bo, I would have signed up without ever first setting foot in the state.
Illinois fans have to step up, BIG TIME, and show up for the games. Iowans do it for TWO Power 5 programs. Wisconsin does it. Nebraska has sold out EVERY SINGLE HOME GAME IN MY LIFETIME, and I’m almost eligible for Social Security.
This stuff matters, folks. So load up the mini-van, take your whole family to a couple Illini games. Tickets are really, really affordable, and the experience is fun. Tailgating, people-watching, etc…Just go, because you can do your part to elevate the Illini program in the eyes of the current players and the future ones, too.
There are other reasons, as well. Some families relocated to Illinois and their family roots are elsewhere. Some kids are not a fit for the current scheme. Some kids just want to get away from home. All understandable reasons. Other universities and other communities have attractive options for sure, but it doesn’t keep me from dreaming about “what could happen if Illinois kept the best players home?”
The State of Illinois isn’t a hotbed of high school football
in the way that Texas, Florida, or Georgia are. There are better programs in a number of states, but Illinois is the 6th most populated state in America, so there is plenty of home grown talent to build a foundation with. Plenty.
I took a look into the rosters at the other 13 Big Ten schools. I found 84, EIGHTY-FOUR players listed who graduated high school in Illinois. Some of the names are recognizable stars, some are solid depth pieces at their schools and, I would guess, half are just guys on the squad who will never be big contributors, guys like I was, a wannabe who was going into coaching and wanted the hands-on experience of trying to play college ball.
I don’t want to get into specific player names here, but many of you already have some guys in mind, either from the past of present, who could have really helped Illinois win more games.
But what is the impact?
Let’s assume that of those 84, half are just dudes….roster fillers who don’t make an impact, like that 5th string quarterback, or the third-string long-snapper. That leaves 42.
Of those 42, let’s even further assume that half of those guys aren’t any better than what the Illini already have. That leaves 21.
Of those 21, let’s just say that half of those kids just wanted to play somewhere else for any of the reasons listed above, or for some other reason.
So that boils it down to 11 solid Big Ten players, from Illinois, who are helping other programs in the league. Let’s assume that 4 would be first team, 4 second-team, and 3 third team players out of those 11. Don’t you think the Orange and Blue would be much more competitive, year in, and year out, with 11 more good players?
But those numbers are just the Big Ten Conference players from the Land of Lincoln.
To more look a little deeper at the issue, I took the next step and looked at the rosters of the non-Big Ten teams from bordering states. Kids that didn’t go too far from home, but still don’t play for the Illini.
So, just in those programs, we see another 29, which, when you whittle it down like before, should net Illinois another 3 or 4 good players.
Just off the top of my head, I know of an Illinois kid who played in the college football playoff last year as a starter, I know of a 5 star Under Armour All-American at Miami, too. One top recruit in Illinois this year is committed to Alabama.
Lots and lots of kids are getting away. The UI is a great school, now we need it to be a great football destination.
Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith are great ambassadors for the University of Illinois
and we, as fans, need to get behind these gentlemen and support this team as it builds. It IS building. It will be better than the year before, and the games will be more competitive and more exciting. I truly believe there will be more wins this year than last, and more wins to come.
So, Illini fans, jump on board and help Josh and Lovie put their foot on the gas.