Tate: Illini need stability among coaches, players
In football, creating turnovers is good, but player-staff turnover is bad.
Illinois has been going the wrong direction in both. During the six-year period ending in 2013, dating to the 2008 season when the latest UI slump began to take shape, we have seen two head coaches and 33 assistants.
Thirty-three! An astounding number. Other than Ron Zook, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is the only one of the nine annual assistants who shows up in four of those seasons ... and he left this year to join the North Carolina staff.
It's been a swinging door of confusion. We've seen co-coordinators on defense and co-coordinators on offense. We've seen the head coach in full charge, and we've seen him step back. We've seen assistants accepting jobs here, and then changing their minds. Five aides disappeared after one season with current UI head coach Tim Beckman.
This is no way to run a railroad. For all the expertise of Bill Cubit, he is engaged in the trying task of undoing previous schemes as he installs the fifth different offensive operation in six seasons here.
Is continuity important? Ask Corey Lewis. The sixth-year tackle, bouncing around on sound knees for the first time since the spring of 2010, must wonder what's going on. The product of Cresco, Pa., has had three different line coaches in just the last six months ... Luke Butkus, Jim Bridge and now A.J. Ricker.
How many different ways has he been instructed in the blocking schemes?
Time not on their side
What has become an exodus of coaches took a serious left turn in 2008 when three highly regarded Zook aides — offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and line coaches Tom Sims and Eric Wolford — ended their stays here.
The shuffling really got heated after the 2009 season when Mike Schultz didn't work out as Locksley's successor, and the duo of Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning were brought in essentially as "head coaches" of the offensive and defensive units. This led to a major shakeup.
But field operation is secondary to my concerns. Here's a bigger, more impactful question: How do you recruit talent at a high school in suburban Chicago when the ever-changing UI coach-recruiter needs an introduction to the prep coach every other year? Don't all relationships require time?
If you believe the Illini can be successful by attracting talent from Ohio and the Deep South — that's been the approach of late — my questions are these: Can it be sustained? And can the UI beat out the powers in other states when they can't hold their own at home?
Young athletes see what's happening. The BTN shows large crowds at other spring games, and empty stands at Illinois.
We can pretend this isn't so, and we're fooling ourselves. At this stage, it's hard to tell who is more indifferent toward Illini football, prospective recruits or long-suffering UI fans?
Sad state of affairs
We hear talk that Beckman needs to get it rolling this season or, at the latest, the following year if he's going to keep his job. Like, win now whether or not you have the available talent to do so.
This "win now" demand overlooks the fact that it took years to foul the mess kit at home, and it'll surely take years to clean it up. Recruiting takes time, and they're starting from scratch.
In 2011, Zook's last season, he brought in 22 players on scholarship. It was, generally speaking, an average class headed by tight end Jon Davis and quarterback Reilly O'Toole.
When the UI squad took the field Friday night, just 12 were available for the spring game as injuries, suspensions and departures took a toll. When everyone is presumably healthy and that group reports in August, only hard-running Texan Donovonn Young, Indianapolis guard Ted Karras and Louisville's Davis have established themselves firmly as standouts. Of seven Illinoisans on the original 22-man list in 2011, none figures to start.
So, combining Zook's last two classes in 2010 and 2011 — Beckman's counted-on leaders in 2013 — there are just three Illinois high school products in the projected starting lineup. Three! And two of those, D-tackles Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma, are receiving their first extended opportunities at positions lacking any other experienced returnees.
My point is and will continue to be: Illinois can't expect long-term success on the football field without an influx of the blue-chip talent from a Chicago metropolitan region that has obviously displayed sporadic feelings of loyalty to the state university.
An enterprising UI coach might attract junior college players for a time or, as has happened, entice the best out of Washington, D.C., on the basis of one man's contacts (Locksley), but the only approach assuring long-term success is to build relationships in northern Illinois and mine the area on a consistent basis.
In the latest shortfall, the UI has three incoming freshman from alongside Interstate 80 but only one — Bolingbrook QB Aaron Bailey — from the dozens of large high schools covering a lakeside area of roughly 10 million people ... almost as populous as Wisconsin and Indiana combined and far more productive of football talent.
The words of Barry Alvarez echoed long ago when he proclaimed: "Our recruiting starts in the home state of Wisconsin." The Badgers also looked elsewhere, but they emphasized the home base first.
It took Lou Henson "a lot longer than I expected," but he corralled Chicago basketball talent (before the Deon Thomas fiasco shot him down). Until football recruiting improves north of I-80, Illini successes will be few and far between. That's the hard truth. Every school goes beyond its state line to recruit, only a few attain lasting success without dominating the home base.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.