The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, April 15, 2018

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, April 15, 2018

With college sports' late national signing day in the books and decision day for non-jocks coming up on May 1, we asked this week's panel of former Illini: What do you remember most about the time you said 'I do' to the orange and blue?

Champaign Central Hall of Famer, .326 career hitter at UI, now senior director of business operations for World Series champion Houston Astros

"I was considering Illinois, Tulane and Notre Dame. The Notre Dame assistant called me about three weeks before the signing date. I was told that I was their backup choice and that if their number 1 choice didn't commit, they wanted me.

"Well, signing day came, and they called me, and I remember saying, 'No thank you. I'm going to Illinois.'

"I was proud to be Illinois' number 1 choice, and I will always be grateful to Itch Jones for giving me the opportunity."


1986: N-G's first all-state volleyball player of the year; 1990: UI's Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year

"Back in 1987, you waited until the night before signing day. I called Mike Hebert in the middle of the evening — around 9:30 — to tell him. I could tell I probably woke him up; he didn't even sound like he knew who I was. So that didn't make it a very special feeling, when you're 17 and about to make a decision like this. I was very nervous.

"So I said again, 'Hi Mike, this is Laura Bush.' He's like, 'Ohhh, Laura Bush.' Me having no aptitude for speaking on the phone, I just spilled it out: 'I am coming to the University of Illinois.'

"There was this very long pause. He said, 'Tell me that again.' I said, 'I've decided I'd like to play volleyball for the University of Illinois.'

"He said, 'Really?' I'm like, 'Yeah. Is that OK?'

"He just said, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it.'

"The next morning, when I called Stanford, which had been my top choice, I remember the tone of voice (then-coach) Don (Shaw) had. He said, 'You're going where?' and 'Why?' I said, 'They can give me everything I want.' He said, 'Do you realize that not everyone gets a chance to pass up a Stanford education?' I said, 'I guess I'm just country enough that I am.'"


Starting guard for three basketball coaches; now CEO of Blue Ribbon charter school in Georgia

"Those days leading up to a final decision were hectic. Kentucky pulled out Adolph Rupp. The last couple of days before my decision, he called me and asked in that Rupp voice, 'Son, how about playing some Kentucky basketball?' We had a great conversation, and I will remember that until the day I die.

"I was coming in from a date early, about 10 o'clock an evening or two later and Coach (Bob) Knight called and told me he was holding one scholarship for me or Bobby Wilkerson and he wanted me first. The catch was I had to make a decision, in Knight fashion, right then on the phone. I sat on the edge of my folks' bed with them and discussed the options and eventually turned him down. That caused me to decide it was time the make a decision.

"My folks and I sat a the kitchen table, where all major decisions were made, and I decided on Illinois. I was getting up to call Harv Schmidt and Coach (Tates) Locke called from Clemson. We were close and my father really liked Clemson, Coach Locke and his staff. So I had to immediately tell him I had made a decision. No sooner did I hang up the phone than I looked up and Norm Stewart was coming up the driveway. I had visited Missouri twice. I am confident that he was very sure I was headed to Mizzou. That was a difficult conversation. Norm is a great person who I respect and had great respect for his program. Thank God for good parents to help with that conversation."I then, after all this, called Harv. A signing was set up in the administrative offices of Paris High School, and I was a member of the Fighting Illini."


5-year NFL lineman

"I was such an under-the-radar recruit, I'm not even sure most people in my high school knew I was signing with a big-time program like Illinois. I was a quiet, somewhat nerdy kid who kept to his small group of friends.

"One of the most memorable moments of my recruitment came the morning after I actually committed to play at Northern Illinois. I was dying to play in the Big Ten, but it was beginning to appear that nobody was going to offer me the opportunity. It was a Sunday morning and I was a church when my cell phone began to blow up. My recruiting coach, Coach (Mike) Locksley, was calling and he was not happy.

"Long story short: After a gentle tongue lashing, I finally had a Big Ten offer. Unlike all the events you see kids have now on signing day, I asked for a hall pass the period before lunch to go the library, where I would meet a few of my coaches, the AD, the principal and my mom.

"There was no fancy suit, no speeches, but there were a couple pictures for the school website. Ten minutes later, we were done and I was heading back to class."


Starting guard in '80s now head coach at Illinois Central College

"My deal was pretty simple — make a decision between Illinois, Bradley, Northern Illinois and Illinois Wesleyan.

"I was playing baseball at the time of making my decision and I went from leadoff hitter to batting ninth. I was batting .096 and my coach, Jim Gottwald, took me out of the starting lineup and told me once I make a decision on where I was going to school, then — and only then — I would get back into the lineup.

"My dad and I sat down that night and I decided on Illinois and I finished the season batting over .340 for the season."


Illinois Athletics Hall of Famer, 3-time NCAA hurdles champ, 2-time Olympian

"I'm a bit of a dinosaur. We didn't have official announcements back when I signed in '99 — at least I didn't. So there was no big moment or lead-up. I just signed the shipped papers and sent them back.

"Kinda wish I'd had a big signing day."


All-Big Ten captain of 1964 football team

"I narrowed my choices to two: Illinois and Michigan, Pete and Bump Elliott. Two great choices and I liked both. One key factor in the final analysis was playing football in my home state of Illinois, where I was raised and where I most likely was going to settle. As it has turned out, I have lived longer in North Carolina than Illinois

"The day I decided was a cloudy, rainy day and I was home alone. It was time to make my choice. I did and called Coach Buck McPhail, who put Coach Pete Elliott on the phone, too. They were most encouraging and from that moment on, I was a Fighting Illini."I then called my parents; high school coach, Bob Baietto; Judy, my girlfriend and now wife of 50 years; and high school buddies. The rest is history."


2016 Olympic mixed doubles silver medalist went 32-0 for 2013 national title team

"Illinois was the first recruiting trip I took and I knew as soon as it was done that it was the right choice for me. I took the other visits just to be sure but my instinct turned out to be correct.

"I didn't feel the need to make a public announcement or anything. Actually signing the piece of paper was nothing more than a formality."


2-time Big Ten soccer forward of the year now playing professionally in Germany

"I remember committing like it happened yesterday. It was back in October 2008 when I called (coach) Janet Rayfield. She didn't answer, so I actually left a voice message telling her I wanted to become an Illini.

"Since NCAA rules didn't allow her to call me back, I told her I'd call again and did 10 or 15 minutes later. She hadn't heard my nervous message so she got to hear it for the first time while I was on the phone.

"I was nervous because I knew how big of a decision it was but I was more excited and the decision felt so right and easy. It was a decision that completely changed my life and I would not be where I am today if I had done it differently.

"I'm forever grateful for everything the University of Illinois gave me and the people it brought into my life. It's a debt I'll never be able to repay."


2001 NCAA wrestling champ

"I signed with Stanford out of high school. I was recruited by Illinois and in hindsight, should have gone there originally. That's what 18-year-old kids do — make bad decisions. But I'm glad it went the way it because it made me realize how ready I was to go to Illinois and reach my wrestling goals. If I would have signed originally, maybe it doesn't work out the same

"I realized about three or four months into college that I was in the wrong place. So after getting permission from Stanford, I reached back out to Illinois. Luckily, they still needed the weight class and didn't have too hard of feelings, though Coach (Mark) Johnson wasn't exactly pleased and neither of us were sure it was going to work out initially. There are lot of balls in the air with recruiting and I had made the mistake the first time — not knowing if it would work out, I reached out to other schools so I wouldn't be left with nothing.

"After not exactly ending our last call on the best of terms, my most vivid memory is Coach Johnson calling way too early in the morning the next day. I answered the phone in my Stanford dorm room not knowing what he was going to say, and it went something like this:

"Coach: 'Are you ready to be an Illini?'

"Myself: 'Are we going to try and win a national championship?'

"Coach: 'We're going to do everything we can.'

"Myself: 'Then I'll be there.'

"Best decision I ever made. I think if he didn't call that morning, it may have ended differently. My two brothers followed and we ended up having a decade run of Tirapelles at Illinois."


2-time All-Big Ten lineman spent 11 years in NFL

"My family and I did not have a major ceremony or media event celebrating my choice to accept a scholarship to the University of Illinois. It was not because we made an active decision against this, nor do I think anything negative about it. I'm not sure if anyone had done such a thing at Lockport before me, or if we were even asked.

"I think if I could do it all over again, with how much I realize my story would inspire others in my community, and being able to publicly address my appreciation for my parents, teachers and coaches, I would definitely do it. I would want to reach more people in my community as proof that big things are happening with the teachers and coaches at Lockport, and all you have to do is believe in them, listen and work relentlessly at your goals.

"Personally, I viewed earning a scholarship as being more than my accomplishment, and only a very small step in a long journey. I took it, like most of all my other accomplishments, as an honor to those who sacrificed so much time and energy into guiding me towards reaching my goals. I spent my summers living with my grandfather in Greece, listening to stories about our family's past, and understanding the purpose to my future.

"My parents had emigrated to the United States so that I can have the opportunities they never had, which always centered on getting a college degree. Because nobody in my family had a formal education, and I witnessed their daily labor, I understood when they lectured me on how vital an education was. It was my teachers and coaches that built on my parents' foundation for me, because they transferred their knowledge and experience to me so that I can become a strong student-athlete and earn a scholarship to college.

"I don't know the answer, but I was eternally grateful and wanted to honor those that were really responsible for this achievement instead of taking all the glory for myself. Behind every athlete is a small group of people who were able to inspire, motivate and encourage us to do the right things along the way. There are special people in athletes' lives that give us the confidence and the tools to enter in our arenas.

"These are the people I think I personally thanked, and I was happy to tell them the news of Coach (Ron) Turner's offer, and to see their excitement and happiness; that was the real celebration for me.

"Although it was my scholarship, and I directly benefited from it, in an odd way the excitement it brought to my life, and the magnitude of receiving such an award, immediately inspired me to work and focus even harder. Remember, coming from modest means, opportunities exist, but they are few and far between. I received mine, and it was priceless; I had to make the most of it.

"Maybe I was just too busy to stop and celebrate, because there was more work to be done? Maybe I was always meant to be an offensive lineman because the unwritten rule was that we could never be the ones taking credit for the success of the team? We were supposed to do it for the glory, never the glamour. My team was made up of outstanding parents, teachers and coaches, and I took the scholarship as a 'team award.'"


2008 Team USA Olympic gymnast now coaching his alma mater

"We didn't do big signing moments like the athletes do now. I signed my full scholarship at my kitchen table and sent it off in the mail. My process was certainly memorable, though.

"My sister was a scholarship athlete at Ohio State on their gymnastics team I had grown to love. When the time came for me, the coach did not have a full scholarship set aside, while every other school I took a trip to on did. There were three or four guys on the Ohio State team that were going to give up part of their scholarship to help close the gap on mine but ultimately Illinois won out for various reasons.

"Michigan was a similar situation. They recruited the top guys in the country, explaining they had four scholarships. There was a clerical error and it turns out they did not have four full scholarships and on our trip they presented the four scholarships to the top four guys and said it was first come, first served. I did not like the idea of being rushed through my process or that they didn't just offer the full scholarships to their true top guys, which I felt like I should have been.

"Berkeley was fun but a little to eclectic for my liking.

"Oklahoma was fine, but I came in as an aerospace engineering (major) and Illinois seemed like a better place to do engineering than OU.

"I took my first trip to Illinois and had the opportunity to compare every other school to the very high standard that it set. At the end of the process, I felt mostly at home with the team and they had a full scholarship for me and a teammate who would eventually become the best man at my wedding, Adam Pummer. We took most of our trips together and I remember being on the phone with him as we made our final decision.

"Illinois was not at the top of the gymnastics field those past few years, but that was not something I was concerned with. I wanted a family environment — my team was everything to me and ultimately that was the deciding factor. College was also a steppingstone for my future so academics were also very important.

"Anyway, we were on the phone for about 20 minutes talking about all the 'bad parts' of the other schools. At the end, we were like, 'OK, Illinois first. What are the cons of Illinois?' We both seamed surprised and simultaneously said, 'Nothing!' I guess were going to the University of Illinois.

"My own experience guides me through the recruiting process every year."


4-year starter at safety, part of 2001 Big Ten title team

"I was the first person inducted into my high school's hall of fame, so when it came to signing ceremonies and events, there weren't any.

"My father, being a coach at Oregon State, was granted a pass at his signing day for mine. I had offers from all the Pac-10 schools and many of the Big Ten schools. The final two were UCLA and Illinois. I decided early, but UCLA made another run at me late to switch. I kept my word and made history as the first guy to sign with a Division I school.

"Even though I was comfortable, I was so nervous because I hoped that I was making the right choice, turning down perennial powerhouses like Michigan and Ohio State. But being a piece of the foundation of something great and bucking the trend of 'you should go here to be on TV' is just in my nature. I liked the idea of accomplishing something people think is impossible. If you don't believe me, look at '97, then at '01.

"Everyone knew about my decision. I didn't hide. People asked and I told them. I wore an Illinois jacket to school everyday. 'Why not the Pac-10 with your speed?' was the question I got the most. Always my answer: They get down and dirty in the Big Ten.

"Random people who went to Illinois and lived in Oregon would send me letters thanking me for choosing to be an Illini. It was pretty cool to know that strangers cared about my decision, but I later found out that that's just the Illini way."