Asmussen | Bellamy selling in-state recruits on program's brighter future

Asmussen | Bellamy selling in-state recruits on program's brighter future

CHAMPAIGN — Rehiring Mike Bellamy is already paying off for Illinois football.

On Monday, Chicago Marist receiver Jadon Thompson, one of the top prospects in the state, made a commitment to Illinois. In large part because of Bellamy's efforts.

"Before (Bellamy) came to Illinois, he talked to Jadon and started to develop that relationship," Marist coach Ron Dawczak said. "As soon as he was hired to be on staff at Illinois, he made it a priority to come and see Jadon and continued to strengthen that relationship.

"I think Jadon liked him as a person, trusted him and is looking forward to working with him the four years he's in college."

Way back when — 30 years ago — Bellamy starred for Illinois at receiver. He put together a monster senior season and got drafted early by the NFL.

Thompson wasn't born yet. But his current coach was.

"I remember Mike playing at Illinois when I was a kid," Dawczak said. "He was a great, great player. He was able to relate to Jadon in a way that Jadon felt comfortable."

By rule, Bellamy can't talk publicly about Thompson until he signs with Illinois. Which figures to be in December during the first of two recruiting signing windows.

If it goes the way Illinois hopes, there will be many more recruits Bellamy can't talk about until later.

Bellamy doesn't expect Illinois to get them all. How many out of the top 10?

"Our standard is we should be in the conversation," Bellamy said.

Easy sell?

The numbers aren't good. Nine wins in the past three seasons. No bowl appearance since 2014. Last winning season in 2011.

But Bellamy is more of a glass half-full kind of guy. When talking to recruits and their families, he points out the potential. Especially for the players from Illinois.

"When you have an opportunity to play at your state school, when you get an opportunity to play at the University of Illinois, it should be a privilege," Bellamy said. "That's one of the things I've sold some of the kids that were here this past weekend is 'Why are we continually taking the talent that is in-state and sharing it with other places?'"

That's not how it works in other places elsewhere. The best players in Georgia, for instance, tend to stay close to home. The top 20 players go to Georgia, Georgia Tech and nearby SEC schools.

"That's how it should be," Bellamy said. "There should be guys that want to play at the University of Illinois. It's on their birth certificates, on their drivers license. Be proud about it."

When Illinois has been good in the past, it got major contributions from the state.

The 2008 Rose Bowl team had 16 home-grown starters, including stars Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams, J Leman and Martin O'Donnell.

Bellamy wants Illinois to be a destination for the top local players. It's a challenge.

"They get caught up on logos," Bellamy said. "They start chasing the dreams and they go to the (football) factories and not realizing the family's going to take care of you."

The departing players don't have the same support system in a faraway state. When something goes wrong — as it sometimes does — they can't make a quick trip home.

Pass it on

Bellamy is pushing to get the state's high school coaches to believe in the Illini. He wants them on board.

"It is really their program," he said.

The staff cast a wide net.

"We've offered every kid that is capable of playing Big Ten football at the University of Illinois in the state," Bellamy said.

When he returned to the staff this winter, Bellamy figured he would be recruiting in the state.

Originally from New York, he went to Chicago Kenwood and then the College of DuPage.

He dreamed of playing at Illinois. And eventually got the chance.

"David Williams was my hero," Bellamy said. "You see all the quarterbacks that came out of here, all the defensive backs. My first year here, the NFL was hanging out here."

He's thrilled to be home.

"I'm a Chicago guy," Bellamy said. "Family is still there. Friends are still there. My phone rang with 708 and 312 numbers when I took the job. High school coaches saying 'Hey, I don't have any players, but just show your face.' It helps."

At his other coaching stops, Bellamy recruited Chicago.

"I've always stayed in communication," Bellamy said. "I'm always going to recruit the top player at every position in the state of Illinois."

Second chance

Bellamy could have been here all along. He worked on Tim Beckman's staff from 2012-14 and stayed with Bill Cubit in 2015.

When Lovie Smith got hired, Bellamy wasn't retained.

He spent a season at Mississippi State as an analyst and two more at Toledo, working with receivers, before coming back to Illinois in February.

"When you lose someone, I see it as an opportunity to bring in some new blood," Smith said. "We've gotten that."

Most years, the Illinois football staff has included an alum. Bellamy fills the hole left by former offensive line coach Luke Butkus, now with the Green Bay Packers.

Bellamy knows the history and tradition without looking at the media guide. He knows the good places to eat and shop and live.

"It comes out when you talk to him how much he loves the university," Smith said.

When Smith hires assistants, their on-field abilities come first.

"You want a good teacher, a good person and a good man," Smith said.

Recruiting is a big part, too.

"There's a lot of different boxes that I try to check off when I hire someone," Smith said, "and Mike checked them all off."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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