Tate: Illini are losing more than just games

Read the transcript from Loren Tate and Jim Turpin's chat here.

CHAMPAIGN – If you challenge me to a game of choose-up-sides and let me have first pick at every position, two things will happen.

One, some of your players will, for a variety of reasons, turn out better than mine. But I'll win most of the games because I've got more good players.

That's the stranglehold advantage that Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, as three football examples, have on Illinois. They possess clear edges in tradition, attendance and resources, and have always recruited more quality players. Now, with UI arrows pointing down and coach Ron Zook's approval rating lower than that of Congress (21 percent by one recent poll), the syndrome is manifesting itself in yet another recruiting class.

"That's why the games at Indiana and Purdue are so important," said Jeff Johnson, Rivals.com guru on Illinois recruiting. "You can only recruit on hope so long. Illinois desperately needs something good to happen."

Just to stay within shouting range. Just to keep up with the Minnesotas and Wisconsins. Recruiting, after all, is the lifeblood of success and, when things were going bad for Zook in 2005-06, incoming classes were perceived as a reason for optimism.

Let's all agree that player evaluations by Rivals.com and Scout.com are as erratic as a Kansas weather forecast. Still, these numbers mean something.

– Every Big Ten team has more early commitments than Illinois. According to Rivals.com, Penn State has 19 commits of which 14 are four-star prospects, Ohio State 13 and eight, Michigan 19 and four, Michigan State 14 and four, Minnesota 18 and two, Iowa 17 and two, Wisconsin 15 and none, Indiana 22 and none, Purdue 14 and none and Northwestern 10 and none. Illinois has nine, of which two have four-star rankings. And while those two, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz of Johnsburg and defensive back Corey Cooper of Proviso East, confirm their intention to attend Illinois, they're hedging their bets.

Fiedorowicz has said he'll visit Iowa and Wisconsin while Cooper has scheduled trips to Notre Dame, Arizona and Tennessee.

– Want to know why the same teams, with a few exceptions, dominate the Top 25 year after year? Consider that Texas has verbals from 16 four-star players, LSU 15 and Oklahoma 12. Is that an advantage, or what? Southern Cal has eight four-star and two five-star standouts. Florida has 12 four-stars and one five-star. A lot of these high-ranked stars will fizzle, but these programs start with more top-rated players in a single class than Illinois and others in the Big Ten's mid-range attract in four years.

– The state of Illinois is down in talent. Otherwise, how do you explain that the 10 Big Ten schools other than the UI have 161 verbals, and only nine are from Illinois. Northwestern has yet to draw a single player from its own state.

Illini need 'a catalyst'

"We talk to a lot of high school players, and they're still saying the right things," Johnson said. "There'll be a lot of prospects on campus for the Michigan game (Oct. 31). The Illini need something positive to happen. They need to be 3-4 when Michigan comes to town. Iowa and Wisconsin are working hard to influence Fiedorowicz to change his mind."

Iowa senior tight end Tony Moeaki caught six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's 30-28 defeat of Michigan. All-star Travis Beckum has graduated, but the Badgers are still emphasizing throws to the tight end, Garrett Graham (27 catches so far). Even with UI offensive coordinator Mike Schultz coaching the tight ends, not many passes are being thrown that direction. With Michael Hoomanawanui hurt Saturday, the Illini threw no balls to the tight end. And Hoomanawanui has just five catches so far. You can see what Iowa and Wisconsin are selling to a 6-foot-7 speedster who wants the ball.

"Negative recruiting is going strong," said Scout.com's Jack Lyman. "Opponents are saying Illinois was a one-year wonder, a flash-in-the-pan, and using that against them. It is hard to compare this upcoming class with other Zook classes because they don't have the numbers. They can't bring in 25-plus like they did before. This class won't have the depth.

"The Illini team desperately needs something to serve as a catalyst," Lyman said. "The results of these games affects recruiting. Sean Hickey, a big tackle from Pennsylvania, might be the next player to commit if he thinks Illinois can be a winner. He is also looking at Syracuse and Boston College. Players like Hickey are being advised to wait and see what happens."

Recruiting tidbits

– UI commit Chandler Whitmer of Downers Grove South received four stars from Scout.com but is ranked by Rivals.com behind Prospect's Miles Osei and Wheaton North's Taylor Graham as the top quarterbacks in the state. Based on the first half of the season, Johnson says the uncommitted Osei is Player of the Year. Graham, who was born in Columbus when his father, Kent Graham, was playing for Ohio State, is the lone Illinoisan committed to the Buckeyes.

– Darryl Lee, linebacker from Florida, is attending Parkland and will count among next year's UI recruits. St. Louisan Jerry Brown, a standout defensive end last spring, lost eligibility but is still here and may want to return. And tackle D'Angelo McCray is sitting out in junior college (Coffeyville) and is interested in coming back.

– Mike Locksley, who raided Washington, D.C., for talent while here, has taken his lariat to New Mexico where he has attracted and gained verbals from nearly 20 players from the nation's capital ... even as he is on the verge of being fired. Lineman Ugo Uzodinma transferred to New Mexico last month, leaving the UI nine D.C. players on its two-deep chart. Look for those numbers to dwindle in the future.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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myattitude wrote on October 12, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I believe there is merit to Loren's argument but I think the part he keeps overlooking is that any school can overcome these problems with a true quality coach. In football I don;t believe Illinois has had a quality coach they could keep.

Mike White might have been that guy but he couldn't control the program. One other coach I wonder about is Bob Blackman who I wonder if he might have done better with better resources provided. At that time Cecil Coleman did little to improve the resources available. That was also a different time with different rules and bowl situation.

What I have noticed is when we get a new coach he usually has one good year which seems to be due to introducing new wrinkles that the other teams quickly catch onto.

I believe a truly quality coach could bring the Illinois product up year after year. We have yet to see that coach.

rmitchell wrote on October 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

sorry, "myattidude", but Blackman was mocked by his players and ultimately left the cupboard bare for Moeller. I know, I was a member of a couple of his teams.

illinibri wrote on October 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Zook was suppose to be a great recruiter. He cannot even get one good class. He lived two years ago on Mendenhall. That was Ron Turner's recruit.

ZOOK has got to go bye - bye.

ILLINIAJ wrote on October 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

once again a quality researched and written column that the loonies can not accept as truth. This program will always struggle to recruit top talent even if Jesus himself was roaming the sidelines.

jturner wrote on October 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Look west to Iowa. If you can coach 'em up, you can succeed.

flyinIL wrote on October 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

i agree, jturner. iowa gets the occasional 4 star kid, but ferentz gets the most out of mainly 3 star talent...and all they do is win and go to bowls. imagine what a dude like that could've done juice's class or the rejus/wilson class? i'll keep sayin' it: if we don't get rid of zook during the season (tomorrow!), we'll pay the price in recruiting, etc., for the next 3 to 4 years. we've seen this movie in C-U - been playin' over and over since the lou tepper days...

peterborich wrote on October 12, 2009 at 11:10 pm

If Coach Zook would have bothered to hire real offensive and defensive coordinators, then the program would not be in the crisis state it is in right now. Mike Schultz is clearly a disaster and Dan Disch has no business being a I-A level defensive coodinator. Zook needs to clean house at the end of the season with his coodinators and hire ones that actually know what they are doing.

Illinigrad wrote on October 12, 2009 at 11:10 pm

If this is a bowl-less season I suspect Zook will be forced to replace some of his assistants to save his own job. The lack of success last year and this year comes down to coaching and not the players. There is plenty of talent on this team (and last year's) to be a mediocre 6-6.

IlliniHimey wrote on October 13, 2009 at 1:10 am

Once again, Nadia (Jeff Johnson) is wrong. Why would we want something good to happen at this stage of the season? Win against Indiana and Purdue, and that will probably be all that His Excellency Howard Guenther will need to retain Zook for another year.

Just end this train wreck. Go 1-11 so it forces Guenther's hand. Then again, all it will do is force him into hiring another bad coach.

will134 wrote on October 13, 2009 at 7:10 am

Quality coach? So how do you explain Gary Moeller's success at Michigan after his stint in Champaign? It is much much more than a coach, it is an entire program. And right now Illinois is exemplifying the same pattern: a new coach comes in and rebuilds, has 2 competitive years, then the program has a couple of bad years (see Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook). Its going to come to the point where Illinois needs to stick with a head coach through thick and thin, but this is the worst time for considering a coaching change-particularly with what is going on with U of I administrative changes. In both football and basketball, when we do have a consistent winning coach, they have sought for bigger and better positions (see Lon Kruger, Bill Self, John Mackovic). Let Zook have the benefit of caretaking his own misfortunes while the university gets stable up front. The program is clearly cyclic, so Illinois football should be competitive again in a couple of years.

MarkHoekstra wrote on October 13, 2009 at 8:10 am

Ron Guenther, please resign. 79-121-2. 6 home games a year is a joke with a renovated stadium.

kfj wrote on October 13, 2009 at 8:10 am

I agree with the comments of will134 (see above). Get, as well, a good quarterback's coach and improve upon the offensive and defense coordinator system. Coach Zook will continue to work hard and even moreso now correct the problems. Illinois should stand firm in support of Coach Zook and make this widely known to the general public nationwide. This will stop the rumors of his demize in general and specifically when it comes to recruiting future football players from Illinois and elsewhere. The Illinois adminstration should be vocal in their support of Coach Zook. They should get with the program of solid and sound public relations, not be silent. Otherwise, other schools will continue their attempts to raid future Illinois recruits. Final point, Loren is way too dramatic with this column, saying things in support of the Illinois program verbally but writing the opposite in his columns. Stay consistent Loren, that's all we ask of you as a sports writer/jounralist.

WheatonIceman wrote on October 13, 2009 at 9:10 am

Illinois needs to be recruiting the right guys, not just the 3- and 4- star guys. We need leaders who are willing to accept the challenge and responsibility to make Illinois into a winner. Most of Penn State's and OSU's second string could be starting at other schools, but they took the easy way out. It's safter to ride the bench at a big program, rather than seizing the chance to lead an up and coming team. That's the selling point. We offer huge opportunity. Just look what Northwestern has done over the past 15 years. They've won 3 big ten champtionships since 1995 without an NFL quality player on their roster. It's about motivation and heart. Wisconsin was a doormat in the Big 10 for 30 years before they put the right pieces in place and have won 3 Rose Bowls since 1993. You can throw the recruiting ratings out the window. Football is a game that's won with strength, intellect, discipline and heart. I think Butkus and Grabowski would agree.

PeoriaIllini wrote on October 13, 2009 at 9:10 am

I agree with some of the other posters. I think it is a matter of needing to go a different way with coordinators rather than a sole issue with Zook.

jimbo2009 wrote on October 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

It's all about the $$! So stick with the Zookster and see how many season tickets you sell next year. And check with all those big donors in the luxury suites....think they enjoy watching this sort of football?

And do we really want RG hiring ANOTHER FB coach? Yikes!

myattitude wrote on October 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Noeller was okay at Michigan with high level talent but he was not making the fans happy in Michigan (I live in Michigan) and his teams were iffy given their talent level. I believe Blackman overall did better than Moeller, Tepper (barely better win percentage than Blackman), Turner, or Zook so far but had far less monetary resources to work with at that time.

Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern show that a good coach can produce competitive teams. Other than White I have not seen Illinois keep a successful coach (Mackovic to me was the only other successful coach in recent history).

White showed the stadium can be filled week after week.

Zook can change assistants but I doubt it will change the dynamics of the team enough to change the situation at this point. Too many coaching changes are needed and that is like starting over with a new head coach.

The key is the right coach and then plenty of money to keep him.

Unless the team goes 1-11 I doubt there will be a change due to the administrative issues cited and the length of Zook's contract.

FloridaIllini wrote on October 13, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Thanks for a good article, Loren. I've been reading your columns since you came to the News-Gazette and glad you are still cranking them out. I am disappointed in the team's attitude and effort. It looks to me like Zook has lost the team. I think there are some pretty major issues internally that we aren't hearing about. This teams has never shown a competitive fire. I don't have the kind of expectations that some of the folks on the blogs have. Historically, the Illini are a .520 team and that's about what we should expect. Hope for better, yes, but expect Big Ten titles like OSU and Michigan. Hasn't happened in many years and I don't think it's going to in the near future. We have titles in 51, 53, 63, 83, 90 and 01. That's my expectation- a title once a decade and be competitive with the other mid level teams each year. Throw in an upset like OSU once in a while and call it good enough. Being a lifelong Illini fan I'll always be one but I don't torture myself with unrealistic expections. I sure miss you and Larry Stewart and Jim Turpin down here in Gator Land. I'm thinking about becoming a Gator fan since I could almost use the same colors! Go Illini!