Former Illinois coach Ron Zook seemed to be a magnet for top-end recruits early in his seven-year tenure with the Illini.
He not only kept the state’s top talent at home, but he was also able to reach out and secure some of the top players from around the nation.
His 2006 recruiting class featured three ESPNU 150 players -- tight end Jeff Cumberland, who was from Ohio, and quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Chris James, who were both from Chicago. A year later, he had three more ESPNU 150 players in linebacker Martez Wilson from Chicago, wide receiver Arrelious Benn from Washington D.C. and D’Angelo McCray from Florida. In both years, he was also retaining most of the state’s premier recruits.
In 2008, that trend began to change. While Zook’s classes didn’t possess as much talent as they did early on, he still was bringing in respectable classes. The difference was those future classes began to include less of the in-state stars and more of the out-of-state ones.
In 2008, nine of the state’s top 10-rated players, including both ESPNU 150 recruits, committed elsewhere. In 2009, Illinois missed on eight of the top 10 players, including three of the four ESPNU 150 recruits. In 2010 and 2011, Illinois missed on all four ESPNU 150 recruits and had just one commitment in each class’s top 10.
In 2012, Illinois doesn’t have a commitment from any of the state’s top-10 players and just one in the top 20. There are nine players in the top 20 who are committed to other Big Ten programs.
“He wasn’t getting the traditional Midwest big guys,” ESPN Midwest recruiting analyst Jared Shanker said of Zook. “He relied too heavily to his ties to the Southeast area to when he was recruiting Florida. He didn’t do enough to sell Illinois’ in-state guys.”
Restoring that in-state pipeline will have to be a priority for whomever is hired to be Zook’s replacement. The state may not produce the amount of talent that some places do, but Illinois has its share of quality players, and right now they’re winning at programs elsewhere in the country.
“He has to take the state back,” Shanker said.
Chicago area’s high school football coaches agreed. They’d like to see more of their players end up at Illinois rather than out of state.
“I’m not convinced Illinois is winning the state of Illinois in terms of getting their top recruits there,” said Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow, whose team won the Class 8A state championship this season. “All these programs, Georgia’s players are from Georgia, Florida kids are from Florida, Illinois kids are from all over the place. You got to get those boys to stay home.”
Bolingbrook’s top player, linebacker Antonio Morrison, was recruited by Illinois, but he opted for Florida for its warm weather and football tradition.
“The tradition was important no doubt about it,” Ivlow said. “You got to make bowl games. If you can make bowl games every year, people take notice. Illinois hasn’t been able to do that. They’re inconsistent. They’re up, they’re down, they’re down, they’re up.”
Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet also felt Illinois’ lack of success on the field has led to its lack of success off it. Since 2009, three of the state’s biggest recruits came from Hetlet’s program, and they also decided to commit out of state. Class of 2009 recruit Chris Watt ended up at Notre Dame, 2011 recruit Jordan Walsh chose Iowa, and 2012 recruit Tommy Schutt is committed to Penn State.
“I think winning begets winning,” Hetlet said. “They have to show they’re going to turn the program around and stay consistent to keep those guys in state.”
Hetlet and Simeon coach Dante Culbreath also thought the Illini’s coaching shake-ups in recent years affected recruiting. Hetlet felt Illinois missed the recruiting presence of Dan Disch, who is now at Southern Miss, and Culbreath believed the same about Reggie Mitchell, who is now at Kansas, and Mike Locksley, who was fired at New Mexico this season.
Zook was able to recruit former Simeon stars Wilson and Jack Ramsey to Illinois, but failed recently with the Wolverines’ marquee players. Class of 2011 offensive lineman Chris Bryant committed to Michigan last year. Class of 2012 quarterback Robert Gregory is committed to Arkansas, and ESPNU 150 offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is looking at other programs.
“I thought Coach Zook started off good, but in his defense he lost his recruiters in Locksley and Reggie Mitchell,” Culbreath said. “He brought in guys who didn’t know the city and the Public League or the surrounding cities. Whoever comes in, he has to get guys who know how to keep the city boys and Illinois boys in Illinois.
“That’s the reality of it. People want to say this and that. If you can’t get the kids out of your own home, most likely you won’t be as successful as you can be.”