The War at Home: Illinois Programs Struggle to Keep Pace in Local Recruiting

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Less than six months ago, Zion Griffin was a relative unknown.

At 6-foot-6, he played center for his high school team, Hinsdale South, but hadn’t had many opportunities to showcase perimeter skills that would warrant longer looks from talent evaluators at the collegiate level. However, he worked on his game relentlessly during the offseason, played a more size-appropriate position on the wing and exploded during the summer AAU circuit.

Once September rolled around, Griffin had 18 scholarship offers and the high-majors had been calling. Despite interest from both the University of Illinois and Illinois State, he chose to take his talents out of the state. Zion Griffin will play for the Iowa State Cyclones next season. And he is one of many examples of Illinois-raised prospects leaving the state for college opportunities elsewhere.

In both basketball and football, top recruits are exiting. That exodus has resulted in rather desperate times for athletic programs at institutions across the Land of Lincoln. At a time when the top college athletics programs can generate massive profits, that’s a problem for a state already struggling to fund higher education.

Recruiting is the backbone of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry and the inability to keep our biggest, brightest stars at home in Illinois puts those programs outside of a cycle where recruiting fuels winning and winning fuels recruiting. And breaking back into that loop can seem impossible.

“This is not Nebraska and it’s not Oklahoma. Whether it’s Northwestern or Illinois, I don’t think anybody is going to be able to quote-unquote ‘lock up the state,’ Illinois high school football expert and EdgyTim.com publisher Tim O’Halloran said. “You’re three hours from Iowa, you’re less than three hours from Wisconsin. South Bend and even the Michigan schools are three-four hours away. There are too many programs surrounding us for that to ever happen.”

However, recruiting well within the state is still essential and it helps build a solid foundation for the average college athletics program. Take the University of Illinois, for instance. When you look back to when both the basketball and football programs were at their peak, they did so with huge stars from right here in Illinois.

Red Grange, Dee Brown, George Halas, Johnny “Red” Kerr, Dick Butkus, Frank Williams, Simeon Rice and Juice Williams hailed from various corners of the state and led their respective teams to national relevance. As recruiting has become a more national industry, however, Illinois programs have struggled to keep its top players at home.

And it’s been particularly difficult to gain a foothold in Chicago.

“In Chicago, you get raided,” former Illinois and NFL linebacker and now Loyola Academy head coach John Holecek said. “I think we’re over-recruited in Chicago by the Big Ten. When you think about it, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan, they’re all in here. Michigan State owned Chicago three or four years ago. You just see it’s such a nationally recruited area. And Illinois, frankly, is further away than Notre Dame and Wisconsin. So it puts them at a disadvantage.”

At Northwestern, high academic standards make recruiting particularly difficult. The Wildcats have some of the highest admission standards of any school in the country, so even though they’d like to draw on the talent within their state to build out both their basketball and football rosters, a lot of prospects simply don’t meet those standards.

“As far as Northwestern, I think they’re very limited with the amount of kids they can take because of academics. Every year you can almost eliminate seven or eight of the Top 10,” O’Halloran said.

In football, that’s led to a more national approach. Recruiters search endlessly for players who fit both their stringent academic requirements and their scheme. Then, they have to hope that the education and some recent success (the football program has made bowls in 7-of-11 seasons under Pat Fitzgerald and the basketball program just made its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance last season) is enough to attract them. Northwestern cannot compete with programs with state-of-the-art facilities and rich athletic histories.

“It’s almost to the point where I don’t think they really even need to mention the academics when they’re recruiting kids. The kids already know,” O’Halloran said. “They certainly remind kids and remind parents about the strength of the academics, but it’s almost a known factor going in so they don’t have to say much. There are plenty of statistics about job placement and alumni bases that tell that story for them.”

Unfortunately, that’s not an approach that works for Illinois’ state schools. The University of Illinois offers a top-class education, but that does not differentiate it from any of the other state schools within the Big Ten Conference. And the directional schools certainly don’t have that advantage.

Instead, they have to appeal to other sensibilities. The problem is that those opportunities are also waning.

It used to be that major college football and basketball programs were the byproducts of their region. State schools, in particular, tended to mirror their locations’ populaces because recruiting was largely local. So when Illinois played Michigan, it truly pitted those two states against one another. High-profile Illinois vs. Michigan or Michigan State matchups functioned almost as Peoria’s ballyhooed preps against the stars from Detroit and Flint.

The great Peoria Manual teams of the 1990s featured Illini like Sergio McClain and Frank Williams, both Mr. Basketball honorees.

Victory was a measuring stick for toughness and the people of a particular region took a lot of pride in their local school’s success athletically.

However, regional imprint means less than ever in college sports. For decades, the only access anybody had to these institutions was based on where they lived and what was broadcast into their homes on television and radio. Now, massive television deals and the internet mean that you can follow any team from anywhere.

A recruit like Griffin might have been preternaturally inclined to go to a state school a couple of decades ago so that his friends and family could follow his career closely. A school in Ames, Iowa, 350 miles away from his home, had little chance in luring him away. But the logistics of leaving home are no longer a concern and what recruits value has changed.

“With my mom, she’s been telling me to get out and explore. I’ve been in Chicago and in Illinois for 17 years of my life. It’s not like anything that I haven’t seen before,” Griffin said. “I wanted to get out and view different things and even if push comes to shove, my mom would probably move down to wherever I go, so it’s not really a big problem.”

Griffin’s family will be able to make the relatively simple flight back and forth from Chicago to Des Moines, so there’s little concern about homesickness and that’s a reality that has changed for most recruits. Whereas playing out-of-state previously might have meant that a player would rarely hear from friends and family, now they are only a Facetime away from the sights and sounds of home.

Of course, those are issues that are a factor for every institution in the country, but Chicago’s location as a major transportation hub does exacerbate the problem. Social media has shrunken the world, but coaches ultimately still need face-to-face interaction to evaluate prospects. Having 80 percent of the state’s population within an hour of O’Hare or Midway means a coach can fly in, rent a car, hit a dozen high schools and be gone that night. Access is simply easier to come by in Chicago.

And when national programs come sniffing around, they’re having enormous success here.

In the Class of 2017, 52 high school football players in Illinois received scholarship offers from Power Five conference schools according to the Rivals.com database. Only 13 stayed home.

In basketball, 20 players from the Class of 2017 received Division I offers and only four stayed to play in the state.

That’s a reality that dates back for quite some time, but it’s been worse in recent years. In the last five years, only 21 percent of Illinois football players who received an offer from a Power Five school have played at an in-state institution. During that same span in basketball, only 19 percent of all Illinois players who received a Division I offer wound up playing within the state of Illinois.

Football programs in particular need to win consistently in their home state to fill out their rosters. In Michigan — a state with comparable demographics and five FBS football programs (compared to Illinois’ three) — 49 percent of recruits with Power Five offers played at an in-state school in 2017. Over the past five years, 44 percent of all Michigan kids with Power Five offers have elected to stay home.

Of course, Mid-American Conference programs NIU, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan aren’t going to win many battles for prospects with power-conference scholarship offers. That leaves two Big Ten schools in each state to compete for the top talent that’s there, and both have major transportation hubs that serve the vast majority of people within their state (Chicago and Detroit).

Given those similarities, Illinois and Michigan should yield similar results on the recruiting trail.

Furthermore, Illinois actually produces more football talent both per capita and in sheer volume than Michigan. However, Michigan keeps nearly half its best football players at home and Illinois keeps less than a quarter.

There are a variety of reasons for that discrepancy, but winning is at its core and Illinois’ struggles have had both a tangible and an intangible cost.

The Michigan athletic department posted profits of just under $6 million in the 2015-16 school year and the Illinois athletic department posted losses of just over $6.7 million. And that doesn’t factor in the larger undergraduate applicant pools that often come with more successful football and basketball programs, which has further economic impact.

In football, Michigan and Michigan State have routinely competed for Big Ten titles and Western Michigan and Central Michigan have competed for MAC titles in the last decade, as well. Meanwhile, Illinois, Northwestern and NIU have all competed in a bowl game the same season just one time in history.

That happened in 2011, and both Illinois and Northwestern made their bowl appearances after a 6-6 regular season. Outside of a five-year stretch when NIU won 10 or more games every season under three different head coaches, including a trip to the Orange Bowl, the state’s football programs have had little success in the last three decades save for a lone Rose Bowl appearance each for Illinois and Northwestern.

That futility exposes the state to invasion from schools with stronger recent success like Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin. SEC schools have even had isolated success in Illinois, snagging the state’s top prospect (according to Rivals) in four out of five seasons from 2011-2015.

Basketball recruiting differs from football in that a relatively small number of major programs dominate nationwide. The sport has always been Blue Blood-centric, so teams like Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke can recruit wherever they’d like without much resistance from local institutions. In-state recruiting is still important, it’s just harder to lock up blue-chip prospects when 15-20 schools control such a large percentage of the talent.

However, the fact remains that Illinois’ basketball programs have all been at their best when they’re regularly pulling big-time talent from within Illinois. As the flagship university in a basketball-crazed state, the Fighting Illini rode this state’s enormous basketball talents to 24 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 33-year span, including eight Sweet 16 berths, four Elite Eights and a pair of Final Fours.

Unfortunately, the Illini have missed the Big Dance the last four seasons. However, they have hired a new head coach who will be making his debut in 2017-18 and he’s off to an interesting start. And it should come as no surprise that he’s made targeting Illinois kids a priority.

Brad Underwood grabbed two of the state’s top prospects (Da’Monte Williams and Mark Smith) in a shortened 2017 time frame, as well as securing a commitment from Morgan Park guard Ayo Dosunmu in the Class of 2018. However, in doing so, he also created some friction between Illinois and the coaches at Simeon, a basketball powerhouse in the Chicago Public League that produced Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose.

Dosunmu and Simeon guard Talen Horton-Tucker were both being heavily recruited by the Illini, but reportedly do not get along. Securing Dosunmu’s commitment led Horton-Tucker to commit to Iowa State where he’ll play alongside Zion Griffin. Simeon coach Robert Smith reportedly wasn’t a fan of how the process played itself out. So even in snatching one of the program’s biggest commits in recent memory, there were consequences.

Still, results will ultimately dictate how well Underwood can recruit within the state.

“Winning on the court feeds success in off-the-court recruiting and off-the-court recruiting feeds winning. I think Ayo [Dosunmu] was a great win,” 247Sports national basketball recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. “But I think everyone acknowledges that recruiting Chicago is tough. It’s complicated and, in this day and age, if you have a great player in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois, you’re going to have national competition.

“I think [the Dosunmu/Horton-Tucker situation] was a situation where Illinois could have had both, but due to a situation that’s outside of their control, they could only get one. And I think one out of two ain’t bad. I do think it’s important to land your regional guys, your local guys, because I think it’s important for the fans. It’s just great for the program in general. I’m really interested in watching how Underwood and his staff navigate this, but I would say he’s off to a pretty good start.”

Unfortunately, Griffin was another player who would have been a huge win for the Underwood staff. They made their offer to the four-star prospect shortly after Iowa State did, but an unofficial visit did not go as planned and the Illini missed the cut when he narrowed his choices to four in late-August.

“After I took my unofficial, I narrowed it down to my Top Four and they weren’t in it because I didn’t feel that click. I didn’t feel that spark that I felt at those other schools,” Griffin said. “I felt like it wasn’t the right spot for me.”

Being a nationally-relevant basketball program in this era is about attracting dynamic talent. However, until a program starts winning regularly and establishing themselves, their best chance of stealing an elite prospect is going to be close to home where they might be able to use a longstanding relationship or use what little regional pride there is left to combat their lack of recent success.

And while the state might not be capable of propping up all of its institutions’ athletic programs in its own right, there is enough talent being produced in Illinois for individual programs to achieve national success.

In football, it starts with consistently pulling in five to seven of the 10 best prospects in the state. In basketball, two or three members of the Top 5 in any given year is almost certain to build a talented and competitive roster.

The Illini basketball program did it regularly at their peak. In football, given Northwestern’s academic challenges and NIU’s location outside of the Power Five, one would assume that the Illini football program is also in the best position to accomplish the task.

Unfortunately, there are so many factors working against them that it simply might not be possible. The Illini’s recent history isn’t strong enough, the university’s facilities aren’t up to par — despite a planned $72 million upgrade in the works, they’ll still be lagging well behind most of the Big Ten — and Champaign is too far from the state’s primary population center.

“It’s an arms race and unfortunately, in this state, with the state of the economy and education and financing and budget problems, I don’t think that Illinois will ever be able to start winning that arms race,” O’Halloran said.

To make matters worse, there’s the enormous football shadow cast by Notre Dame. Chicago diocese high schools produce a significant number of high-profile football recruits on a regular basis and they’re all essentially feeder schools for Notre Dame, the often-favored institution of the 29 percent of people in Illinois who identify as Catholics. Even with the general public’s relative indifference to regional fandom, Notre Dame’s appeal tends to transcend in large part because of its connection to the faith.

Add all that together, and the forecast for Illinois athletic programs is bleak. Hope can be found in the tabbing the right leadership to overcome the assorted hurdles.

Joe Novak changed the culture of the Northern Illinois football program beginning in the late 90s. Chris Collins has done the same with Northwestern basketball over the last few years, reaching a milestone no predecessor could in almost eight decades. And both did it with homegrown talent.

Collins left the state himself after winning Mr. Basketball in 1992 to play for Duke and then spent 14 seasons as a Duke assistant before bringing a similar approach back with him to Northwestern.


Illinois Mr. Basketball Chris Collins in high school.

Despite its historic success, Duke offers a blueprint for Northwestern as an elite academic institution competing in a conference made primarily from state universities.

Over four seasons, Collins established a winning culture and has the Northwestern program primed for a run of sustained success. Half of his roster last year hailed from Illinois.

Novak took over a historically anemic NIU program and built relationships with high school coaches across the state that, over time, helped unearth prospects who had flown under the recruiting radar. By the time he retired and Jerry Kill took over, NIU had cemented itself as the chip-on-its-shoulder institution and the success has continued under each of the subsequent three coaching staffs.

Illinois basketball under Brad Underwood has the next opportunity. He came to Champaign with a winning track record: 89 victories in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin (including two NCAA Tournament wins in 2014 and 2016, with an appearance in 2015) and an NCAA Tournament bid in his lone season at Oklahoma State. If he can accomplish that same kind of overachieving early at Illinois, that success could push the Illini back to the forefront of the college basketball recruiting scene, starting on the local scene.

Wins like Williams, Smith and Dosunmu seem to indicate initial optimism among the state’s top talent. But winning those battles consistently may be what defines Underwood’s tenure, as well as a crucial rallying point for statewide embrace of the program akin to that which Lou Henson and Bill Self enjoyed previously.

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