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CHAMPAIGN — Shortly after Bret Bielema took over as Illinois football coach, he heard from Terry Hawthorne.

A lot.

Not in a pesky way.

The former Illini defensive back turned East St. Louis High School assistant coach wanted to pitch somebody for a job: himself.

“I’ve been trying for the last couple of years, trying to get on and I just stuck to him,” Hawthorne said Wednesday afternoon. “I kept on reaching out to him, reaching out to him, texting him.”

His persistence paid off, which explains why he is the new Director of High School Personnel and Illini Relations for Bielema’s program.

“I’m grateful that Coach is actually giving me the opportunity now as a man, at my alma mater at that,” Hawthorne said.

Bielema is thrilled to have him as part of the family.

“I was very intrigued with who he was,” Bielema said Wednesday. “Every person I engaged about Terry spoke highly of him. When I sat down and interviewed with him, I thought, ‘This is a guy we need to have in the building.’”

What will he be doing day to day?

It starts with recruiting in-state players and building relationships with the state’s high school coaches.

He will also work with former Illinois players, developing the kind of network that helps successful programs. Bielema and Hawthorne have a history. When Bielema was head coach at Wisconsin, Hawthorne was a star player at East St. Louis, earning The News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year honor in 2008.

He was recruited by the Badgers/Bielema, but signed at Illinois.

“There were two of us coming out of high school, me and (receiver) Kraig Appleton,” Hawthorne said. “Kraig was one of those guys who was already college-ready size.”

Appleton never made it as a Badger, getting suspended for violating team rules in 2010 and leaving school shortly afterward.

Hawthorne had a standout career at Illinois, playing 44 games and starring in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (he was defensive MVP).

Hawthorne took a shot at pro football in the NFL and CFL, but injuries cut his career short.

New pathNext, Hawthorne went into coaching, returning to East St. Louis, where he helped the program to a state championship as an assistant.

It was difficult for Hawthorne to say good-bye last month to his former team, a perennial power that’s always one of the best programs in the state.

“A lot of those guys understood it,” Hawthorne said. “Hopefully, the relationship will stay good with me and those guys back at home. I don’t think anyone took it personal.”

Unfortunately, in his new role, he won’t be able to recruit the Flyers for a couple of years. NCAA rules don’t allow it.

Hawthorne has a whole bunch of other schools to recruit.

“I’m going to do my job now,” Hawthorne said, “and do it the best I can.”

Smooth transitionHawthorne won’t need to be shown around campus. Or given directions to the grocery store or restaurants. He knows Champaign-Urbana well.

“It means a lot to be back,” Hawthorne said. “We’re at a stage where the coaching staff Coach B has brought in is phenomenal. We’re here building a family and trying to get the guys that are going to come in and help contribute to the program.”

The place does look a bit different since his playing days ended in 2012. The Smith Center is a serious upgrade from the facilities Hawthorne used.

“I wish we would have had it when we were here,” Hawthorne said. “I feel like we’re at the point now with the facilities that we’re able to compete around the nation. Some of the recruits can come and see it for themselves hopefully once this pandemic is over.”

Hawthorne has already gotten to know players on the current team. He talked to defensive back Tony Adams when he was considering returning for the 2021 season.

“When it was announced I was coming,” Hawthorne said, “he called me, ‘Coach. I’m pumped. I’m excited.’”

He’s not the only one.

Welcome home, Coach.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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