CHAMPAIGN – The conversations leaned late into the night as Dee Brown and Deron Williams contemplated a new home. In their estimation, the situation at Illinois after their first season was not what they had signed up for.
"When coach (Bill) Self left (for Kansas), those guys felt betrayed and cheated," Jerrance Howard said Wednesday when he was hired as an assistant coach at Illinois. "They were real emotional. You could have brought Michael Jordan in there and it wouldn't have changed their mind."
Their minds were reeling. The prospect of transferring to a different school was very much in the picture. Brown, a Chicagoan, was clashing with a new and unfamiliar coaching staff. Williams, a Texan, didn't like the cold weather or the middle-of-nowhere locale, and he was miffed at Self's exit, Howard said.
"I sat down with those guys for three nights in a row," he said. "It was deep, heart-to-heart stuff."
The meetings took place in Howard's apartment in Savoy. He told Brown and Williams, the flash and smash of a promising backcourt, they would experience three stages in their time of uncertainty after Bruce Weber replaced Self.
First, he said, they would be angry. Second, they would be hurt. Third, they would get to work.
"I told them we had something special going on with Coach Weber," Howard said. "The rest is history."
Sure, you say, but can Jerrance Howard recruit?Can he recruit the elite players?
Shoot, he handled the most important recruiting pitch in Illinois basketball history. As an upperclassman before the 2003-04 season, Howard gathered a pair of future NBA guards and convinced them to stay at Illinois.
You've heard of a commitment, or a decommitment. He got the re-commitment that led to a school-record 37 wins in 2004-05.
"Deron was in my wedding (Aug. 11)," Howard said. "He stood up and said, 'Jerrance is the reason I stayed at Illinois.' "
The sales pitch helped Brown and Williams forge a close relationship with Weber that extends to today, and ultimately develop under Weber into NBA-level talents. Now as the third assistant on Weber's staff, the knock against Howard, 27, is a lack of experience in recruiting circles. The post at Illinois is his first position as a full-time assistant coach after he previously served in an administrative capacity on Billy Gillispie's staffs at Texas A&M and Kentucky.
Howard said Weber and UI athletic director Ron Guenther called him Tuesday with an offer to return to his alma mater.
"When they called, the words to describe him were humbled and anxious. He was humbled by the opportunity, but really he just wants to start going," said his wife, the former Jessica Wordlaw, an Illinois graduate. "It's like a dream job for him to come back to Illinois. This is something he's dreamed about."
Howard's ties to Chicago and elsewhere are bound to be nitpicked until they produce a recruit or three. Still, finding a bad word on Howard is next to impossible because of his personality. But detractors cite a lack of experience.
Howard joked that he already has recruited in Chicago; his wife is a Proviso East grad. Among his immediate family, his father attended Chicago Crane. In his extended family, Howard often shares the Chicago apartment split by Luther Head, a groomsman in his wedding, and Brian Cook, his best man.
"Jerrance has ties everywhere," Williams said. "He has ties wherever he goes. He knows everybody."
Howard had a limited recruiting presence at Kentucky. After being certified by the NCAA to recruit last summer, Howard was a key contact for Kentucky with Darius Miller, a highly rated senior from Maysville, Ky., who committed to the SEC program when Tracy Webster was hired as an assistant. Going back to his Illinois days, Howard served as the host for former and current players on their campus visits.
"Jerrance was the guy I stayed with," Head said.
"He was like a player-coach in a way," said senior forward Brian Randle, who was on the Illinois roster with Howard in 2003-04. "He acted like a mediator. That was his leadership role. He did it well. We obviously had great players. But his being there, his keeping our focus, was really what got us through that season."
At Illinois, Texas A&M and Kentucky, "any recruit or family that came on campus, I had them for the whole weekend," Howard said.
Those were some of the selling points for Weber, who was hamstrung by the timing of Webster's departure.
"Now he's got to get on the phone with (Illinois Wolves coach) Mike Mullins and other guys like (Chicago Meanstreets coach) Tai Streets and everybody else that's out there," Weber said. "Then he's got to go out and meet them face to face. I think he's done a little bit of that. So he's got a little bit of a start. Plus, he had a name here. He had a presence in the state as a high school player (at Peoria Central). And I think all of that will help."
Howard is scheduled to take the NCAA certification test for college recruiters at 9 this morning. Weber, who said he interviewed several candidates before deciding on the initial front-runner, indicated he will join Howard next week on a tour through Chicago recruiting grounds. Weber found a candidate who fit each of his criteria for the position: youth, energy and a passion for the UI. He also acknowledged Howard's minimal experience.
"He is a rookie," Weber said. "But there's a rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers (Ryan Braun) with 31 home runs."
In the time it takes Howard to find his bearings on the road, he is expected to be a driving force with on-campus visits.
"In terms of recruiting, he will be a positive recruiter when you get guys on campus," said Larry Butler, a Chicago-area AAU coach who had Howard on the Illinois Warriors. "That seems to be the problem at Illinois, is when you're getting guys on campus and trying to close and get the commitment. That's where Jerrance will be at his best."
Before he was officially announced as Webster's replacement, Howard extended a hand. He placed calls to people around Peoria Central junior D.J. Richardson. Richardson has a scholarship offer from Illinois. AAU coaches brushed off Howard's lack of experience and focused on his presence.
"Jerrance was a part of the apex of Illinois basketball," said Mullins, whose program features UI recruiting interests Joseph Bertrand, DeAndre McCamey and Diamond Taylor. "I think it was important to Coach Weber that he find someone who was loyal and passionate to him and the University of Illinois. I knew he wouldn't find anyone who was confused about who he was working for. He (Howard) knows who he's working for. Now they have someone who played for them and knows what it takes to sell Illinois."
Shortly after sliding on a blinding orange Polo, Howard countered early critics.
"Everybody that is questioning my recruiting skills, I've been recruiting since I've been in this world," he said.
You could say Howard's skills as a college salesman began with the pitch to Brown and Williams. But he also met a stern test as an administrative assistant at Texas A&M. A promising guard named Acie Law IV was unsettled when Gillispie arrived after Law's freshman season. In a situation that seemed strangely familiar to Howard, Law was considering a transfer.
"Acie was ready to get out of there," Howard said.
Over a period of several days, Howard huddled with Law and convinced the point guard to stay. He did. As a senior, Law became Texas A&M's first consensus All-American before being chosen in the first round of the NBA draft.
"It's exciting for Jerrance and exciting for Illinois. Jerrance will be unheralded in terms of getting recruits out of Chicago for Illinois," Butler said. "He brings electricity. I mean that. He's a guy that can relate to the players and the recruits, talk to them on their level and relate to them on that level."