AAU coach defends Chicago recruiting

One of Chicago’s most powerful club high school coaches said Friday he doesn’t believe Shaka Smart turned down Illinois’ offer because of his reluctance to deal with Chicago recruiting and believes the perception of the city’s recruiting is wrong.

Mike Irvin runs one of Chicago’s most recruited club programs, the Mac Irvin Fire. Its recent players include McDonald’s All-Americans Wayne Blackshear and Jereme Richmond, Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard and Ohio State freshman Sam Thompson. The Fire’s current roster includes the nation’s No.1 junior Jabari Parker and No. 2 sophomore Jahlil Okafor.

According to sourced reports, Smart was turned off by the politics of Chicago recruiting, and that played a factor in his decision to reject Illinois’ offer. Irvin said Smart has recruited Chicago before and doesn’t believe that soured Smart on the Illinois job.

“Shaka knows he can come in and recruit kids from here,” said Irvin, who took over the program for his recently deceased father Mac Irvin. “When Shaka was (an assistant) at Florida, all of our guys had Florida on their list. I didn’t even know who Shaka was before, and he called me 90 times before he got a hold of me. He knows he can come in here.”

Irvin also believes the media perception of Chicago recruiting being a dirty business is wrong.

“It makes me mad when I hear things about recruiting in Chicago,” Irvin said. “Half the people saying the stuff don’t come to Chicago, first of all. My father spent all his years helping build up the city of Chicago and making it a place a lot of college coaches can come and recruit these kids.

“About ¾ of the people, they don’t know where these kids are from. They’ve never been here. They don’t know what we do as AAU coaches. They don’t see it. Just because they’re from the inner city doesn’t mean they’re not smart and they’re gang bangers.

“From what they say, Duke and North Carolina run great programs. They’re coming in and recruiting Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor from our program. They apparently don’t see anything wrong with recruiting Chicago.”

Irvin said he has never taken money to influence a player’s decision and only assists players and their parents with information on schools.

“Never (have I taken money,)” Irvin said. “My father lived in the same house for 40 years. We do it for the kids. You have to have love for the kids. There’s no other way to do it. We want to make a difference for our city.”

Irvin believes recruiting Chicago comes down to relationships.

“We want somebody to come in, and we want a relationship with the coaches,” Irvin said. “For them to come in, they need to roll our up their sleeves and get to work. It’s no different than anywhere else. You just got to put in the time and work. If you don’t want to put in the time and work, yes, Chicago is a difficult place to recruit. If you want to put in the time and work, it’s an easy place.”

Irvin said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell has proven that. While Irvin was among DePaul’s strongest critics when Purnell was hired, he’s since developed a good relationship with him.

“Oliver Purnell has definitely tried, and he’s been very good,” Irvin said. “I got to know Oliver Purnell. That’s the thing – nobody knew Oliver Purnell. It’s definitely opened some doors. If you look at most of the high-major kids from Chicago, they definitely have DePaul on their lists.”

Irvin also refuted that Chicago-area players don’t want to stay home to play. Former Fire players on the Illini’s roster the past two years have included Richmond, Leonard, Crandall Head, Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry and Mike Shaw. DePaul’s roster has included Fire alumni Jeremiah Kelly, Jamee Crockett and Macari Brooks.

“That’s a lot of players to stay home,” Irvin said. “For what their parents and kids are saying, they would like to stay home and play. I don’t think they mind playing in front of their family and friends. That’s a great thing.

“Everyone wants to say Chicago is hard place to recruit. When Illinois is winning, people want to go there. I think that’s half the problem. I think it has more to do with the situation. I don’t want to bad mouth (Bruce) Weber, bad mouth Illinois, but outside of the Final Four (in 2005), it’s been a struggle. They can turn it around if some of the kids go there.”