Former guard runs Illini recruiting game

The recruiting trail gets to coaches. It's flight after flight and game after game. It's about smiles and handshakes followed by more smiles and handshakes. It's what a coach's life entails from July 6 to 15 and again from July 22 to 31.

Usually, by the seventh day of the evaluation period, most are counting down the hours until they're home again.

Then there are the likes of Illinois assistant Jerrance Howard, one of those rare coaches who don't mind living the traveling life of politicians for a few weeks. He actually enjoys all the smiling and handshaking. He even has been known to give out some hugs.

"I love it," said Howard, who had time to talk while driving from Champaign to north suburban Deerfield for another full day of seeing players -- and being seen by them. "I have a passion for it. This is the backbone of the program. It's fun to me."

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber suspected as much even when Howard played point guard for him. Howard wasn't the most talented guy on the Illini roster when Weber arrived in Champaign, but he found him to be one of the more vital pieces to the program's early success. It was Howard who entertained recruits; it was Howard whom teammates turned to; it was Howard who did whatever he had to on the court for however long he could.

When a spot opened on the Illini staff in 2007, Weber thought of that same energetic Howard. He had spent time at Texas A&M (as an administrative assistant in the basketball program) and Kentucky (he worked in basketball operations) since graduating from Illinois. Yet Howard still wasn't a proven recruiter, and Weber knew he was taking a risk when he hired him the summer before the 2007-08 season.

"It was a little dangerous because he didn't have much recruiting experience," Weber said. "But whether it was our staff or the previous staff, he always hosted the recruits. He has that great passion for Illinois and that personality that he likes to talk and meet with people.

"Our fans love him. He was never the greatest player on the team, but a lot of people loved him and knew him. They kind of looked up to him because of his passion and the energy he has. He lives life with a fun spirit."

Howard jumped at the chance to return to Champaign, but he also realized that the task ahead of him was great. Like Weber, he knew his hiring would raise eyebrows. He wasn't a big name in the recruiting game. But Illinois needed to create better ties in Chicago, and Howard, a Peoria product, didn't seem like the logical choice to do so.

Howard heard all these criticisms, and they even started to bother him.

"I was scared, nervous -- all in one," Howard said. "There were a lot of mixed emotions. I went from doubting myself, 'Am I the right hire?' -- I didn't know at first if I could get the job done and be successful. It motivated me as well. A lot of people say I wasn't the right guy. I'm glad people doubted me, because it made me work harder."

Among Howard's early opportunities to prove himself was making sure Jereme Richmond, one of the nation's top Class of 2010 players, remained firm with the Illini. Richmond had committed to Illinois as a high school freshman but was beginning to waver on his decision around the time Howard was hired.

Being younger (Howard turned 29 years old in May), his friendly self and honest, Howard quickly got in good with Richmond. Whatever doubts Richmond had about Illinois soon were squashed.

"I thought about it, but Jerrance reassured me if I remained loyal to him, he would remain loyal to me," Richmond said of his possible decommitment. "He just told me I wouldn't be alone. He told me my goals of a Final Four, national championship, a Big Ten championship were shared by everyone. He definitely reassured me.

"[About] Jerrance, I always tell people away from basketball, 'He's a great person.' He can relate to anybody's situation. I've seen him around people who aren't that comfortable to be around, but he makes the best of the situation."

Howard also had a major hand in persuading guard Crandall Head to join Illinois' 2010 recruiting class. Howard had played alongside Luther Head, Crandall's older brother, at Illinois and had known the family for some time. Crandall had grown up wanting to play for the Illini like his future NBA brother, but he worried about living in Luther's shadow.

"My brother went there, and I would be like a follower," Crandall said. "I had to get over that. [Jerrance] was just telling me I would make my own name. That's what I went by."

Current Illini junior Alex Legion decided to transfer from Kentucky to Illinois based on a similar trust of Howard. Legion has said he can turn to Howard for anything and has described him to be like an older brother.

Tracy Abrams and Meyers Leonard, who have verbally committed to Illinois, also have spoken of how they are able to relate and feel comfortable with Howard.

"He's just a tremendous hard worker who I think almost has a God-given gift of being able to relate to players and families, which is essential in the world of recruitment," said Roy Schmidt, who scouts for recruiting service Illinois Prep Bulls-eye. "I think that's a unique gift of being able to instinctively connect with players. He definitely knows how the game is played. He definitely knows how to sell the Illinois program. He bleeds orange and blue, there's no question about it."

It's not just people in the state who have noticed Howard's recruiting ability. Kentucky and Memphis both approached Howard with job offers this past spring. Although they certainly made Howard pause to consider the offers, his dedication to Illinois and his family, including 9-month-old son, Jerrance Jr., ultimately won out.

Illinois rewarded Howard in May for his loyalty by increasing his salary by $60,000 to $180,000 and extending his contract through 2013. He also will receive a $50,000 signing bonus and a onetime payment of $75,000 if he completes the terms of the contract.

So what is Howard's secret?

"I think the reason I've been successful is I try to develop a personal relationship with the kid and the family," he said. "Once the kids know you and trust you, it definitely separates you from other coaches and schools. You always try to find separation from the other school. When you have recruits at this level, it's the little stuff.

"Some kids have personality and like to talk. Some kids like to talk on e-mail. It's so important to do research before you come into contact with a kid. That first impression is really important. Once a kid feels comfortable with you, you have a better start than everyone else."

That's all part of Howard's opening pitch. He closes when he gets a recruit to make a campus visit.

"I'm not bragging, but no one can sell this university like me," Howard said. "I've been an Illinois fan since I was 6 years old. When [they're] on campus, I take them to the football stadium, to Assembly Hall, to the student union, and to the academic center.
The time between [going from one venue to another], you develop a personal relationship. That time you spend on the golf cart goes a long way."

Howard already has developed a reputation as a top recruiter, but he doesn't want to simply be that. His dream is to lead his own program someday.

"That's my ultimate dream and goal," he said. "I definitely want to be a head coach. I don't want to be labeled a recruiter. That's what I'm doing. When my family goes to sleep, I pop in game film and draw up plays. I want to continue to grow.

"Recruiting is natural for me. It's in me, developing personal relationships. To be a successful head coach, you have a balance of coaching and recruiting. I prepare myself for that every day. It may be three years from now, five years from now, but I'm going to do everything I can [to become a head coach]."