Apr 28, 2020

This might be long. I have a lot of thoughts in my mind. Three people, separately, have asked me about football recruiting in the past week (two friends from St. Louis and one from Chicago), wondering where I am with everything. I get it - I no longer have a job, I'm desperate for things to write about, "the Illini football recruiting class only has one commit" is perhaps the #1 story right now (besides, like, will Ayo or Kofi return), and radio silence. My answer is a long one, but here goes.

My relationship with recruiting has changed so much over the years. Generally, over the last two decades, I would say that my opinions have followed this outline:

  • 2000-2005: "Ron Turner is an NFL guy and he doesn't like recruiting and because of that he's not capitalizing on the Sugar Bowl - we need a RECRUITER".
  • 2005-2010: "Ron Zook is a recruiting God no one understands just how good we're going to be for the next decade plus - we are recruiting right up there with the blue bloods."
  • 2010-2015: "Wait so we had all these NFL draft picks but we still didn't win? Maybe I put too much emphasis on 'Jimmies and Joes not X's and O's'."
  • 2015-2020: "Zook tried the Miami approach and it didn't work. Beckman tried the K-State juco approach and it didn't work. Maybe it's just "build on consistency and nothing else?"

Specifically, with Lovie, I've gone through nearly all of those emotions. I started out expecting his name to open every door. Remember how Illinois football was suddenly on PTI and Kornheiser and Wilbon were discussing how the name Lovie Smith was going to mean so much to recruits and their parents? I've referenced this several times, but there's a podcast out there from the week after Lovie was hired where I said that Lovie Smith + $4 million for assistant coaches was going to mean top-25 classes every single year. The $4 million turned out to not be true - it would have been the 9th-largest assistant salary pool, and it was only something like the 29th-largest assistant salary pool at $3.1 million - and the top-25 classes turned out to be... not something that happened.

At the time, though, it freaked me out. I was experiencing all kinds of anxiety. I'm going to do that thing where I quote myself, and I know that you sometimes skip over the quoted text because you maybe remember that article, but please read this quoted text in this one because it's important.

In May of 2016, I started to freak out about the recruiting numbers. We had a lot of scholarships to give and recruiting was slow to get going under Lovie. So I wrote a post I called Recruiting Anxiety and I talked about it. Here's what I said:

I'm still anxious. These days, if you're going to bring in a class of 27, you want to have around half the class committed by the Fourth of July. Just read the recruiting articles - how many players say "I'd like to have my decision out of the way before my senior season starts in August"? I'm being rather obsessive about this class and have a long spreadsheet listing the majority of Lovie's major targets so far. Perhaps 60% of those players on my list plan to have verballed somewhere before their first high school practice.

So if it's May 7th, and we would ideally have around half our class verballed by July, that means we need to land 11 players in the next two months. Maybe one every five days or so.

Yes, I'm being impatient. Yes, it's a little ridiculous to already be listing target class numbers for the Fourth of July. This class started behind, will continue to be behind, and that's simply the situation Lovie inherited and doesn't reflect on his ability to recruit.

But with almost all of the in-state blue chip recruits already verballed elsewhere, did I talk about how we're significantly behind? And did I mention that this class needs to be The One because the next two classes will be so small? And the scheme changes and the need for specific types of players immediately because they'll need to contribute early - did I cover that?

OK, I'll stop refreshing recruiting websites almost hourly. I'll maybe back off on my Twitter recruiting search obsession. I want so very badly for this class to be full of blue chips but I need to take a few deep breaths and maybe go for a walk.

But did I talk about how one-third of Lovie's second team in 2017 will be made up of his first recruiting class?

That was May 7, 2016. It's now four years later, we're in nearly the same position (this is going to be a full class and we're already way behind other commitment lists with in-state players all going elsewhere), and I have one-eighth of that anxiety. I certainly don't feel good about it, but I'm not obsessively refreshing like I was four years ago. Why not?

First off, I don't really have an answer for you. At least not a satisfying one. When my friend Ben reached out on Thursday, I didn't really have an answer for him besides "Lovie needs a top-35 class and 8 wins - hope it happens". We'll get to February, we'll see how the season went and how the class ranks, and we'll determine whether he cleared the bar or not. My thoughts have been 98% "we HAVE to play this 2020 season", 2% recruiting.

Believe me, part of me wishes I was anxious right now. For most, a lack of angst towards football recruiting right now can only be seen as "Lovie is great, everything is fine, la la la la la la la" homerism. Why would any Illini fan NOT be concerned when looking at the current Illini class and comparing it to all of the other Big Ten classes (including Greg Schiano in his first year attempting to rebuild Rutgers)? As this sank in, I found myself lying awake last night, not anxious about recruiting but anxious about "wait, AM I just a homer who is unwilling to face the cold reality in front of me?"

That's the main question I'm pondering here. When I check all the gauges, no, I'm not anxious at all. I've spent very little time the last six weeks even thinking about football recruiting. As I said last year, I've simply accepted that this staff likes to recruit "late". This is a snippet post, so let's pull a snippet from that one as well (May 2, 2019, so nearly one year ago today)...

Again, these are just my observations. This isn't some "I've talked to sources and heard that..." article. I'm just saying that the average date for the first Lovie verbal in each of the last four classes is April 4th, and that's later than the average date for every other Big Ten school. Some coaches add commits at junior day visits in February - I'm not sure this staff would even accept a commit that early? Compare this to Tim Beckman, who would make a massive push (and, perhaps, a few massive reaches) during the April 15 to May 31 period. This just isn't like that at all.

Which means that we, the fans, don't get to have as much recruiting "fun". Both Brad Underwood and Lovie Smith seem to play recruiting very close to the vest, so the first time we hear the name Sidney Brown or Bernard Kouma is the day they verbal to Illinois. What was once 10 months of me obsessing over Elijah Thomas or Raequon Williams has, for the most part, been reduced to unknown, "surprise" commitments and spring transfer watches.

Underwood certainly changed his ways with the 2020 class, adding Coleman Hawkins in September, Andre Curbelo in October, and Adam Miller in November. For the first time under Underwood, we went about recruiting (or at least the "landing" part) in a traditional way. Will Lovie ever do the same? I doubt it. I've just come to accept that it's always going to be methodical and slow. That's quite a departure from my "oh my God we landed Lovie Smith he's going to own Chicago" ways in March of 2016, but... well, I guess I already covered that above.

Let's fast-forward to this class. On Signing Day in December I set the bar at where I think this 2021 class needs to be (top-35). I even laid out a list of specific expectations for the talent level, allowing for some project recruits but needing to see 12 "we can win the Big Ten West with a guy like that" recruits. I said that it needed to be like the 2020 class (when it included Jadon Thompson), only doubled with no high-end talent dropoff. This is the snippet post so I don't know why I'm doing all this prefacing before I finally get to the cut-and-paste of what I wrote:

If we were to tier this class, I'd go with this:

Certainly look like players who could win the Big Ten West: Love, Frenchie, Riggins, Davis, Spann, Newton (and Thompson)
Players somewhere between the two lists: McCoy, Tyler
Projects: Griffin, Sparks, Gardner, Shipton

Translate that forward to a 24-man class next year and I think the goals should be something like this:

Certainly look like players who could win the Big Ten West: 12 recruits
Players somewhere between the two lists: 6
Projects: 6

Land something like that and with the numbers, you'll have a top-35 class to crow about. Minnesota's current class has 26 players, with (approximating here) 13 in the top category, 6 in the middle, 7 in the bottom, and it ranks 31st, so yeah, that would be the goal here. Their player average is 85.84 and our player average is 85.56 so yeah - a class of 25 at our current player average is going to be right at 35th nationally. That should be the goal, bowl game to sell and whatnot.

Since then I've basically been in "sit back and wait to see what happens" mode. I've set the bar at a very high mark, I think (our last top-35 class was 2009), so it's not going to be easy, but this is Year Five with a bowl game to sell. COVID or no COVID, that's the mark that must be hit.

The process now, for me, on the site, is to categorize all of the recruits as they come in and see which category they land in. My rankings will probably be a little different from the recruiting sites (CJ Dixon was a 4-star but I gave him 2.5 Cruises; Deuce Spann was a 3-star but I gave him 4 Cruises), but when it all averages out, it should come in somewhere around top-35. If it doesn't, well, I don't want to think about that just yet.

And perhaps that's my flaw. Maybe I use "I don't want to think about that just yet" as an excuse to hope that things will turn around instead of facing reality. I mean, that's how I'm treating this whole "I quit my job in mid-February and haven't made a dime since but everything will be OK and my wife is cool with this, right?" situation. Perhaps 2020 will be the year of the reality check.

But for now, this is just where I am. Waiting for names, trying to figure out which category they should go in.

And hoping there will be football in the fall.


DB50 on April 28 @ 02:38 PM CDT

DB50 on April 28 @ 02:45 PM CDT

You answered my question regarding Lovie & recruiting with your post unfortunately.

ppbob on April 28 @ 06:48 PM CDT

Spot on, Robert. The only thing I could add is that good CFB HCs need to know how to work around their personal recruiting inadequacies, and Lovie just doesn't want to choose to do that.

We gave him an $80 million FB facility to build top 30 recruiting classes. If that wasn't the purpose (and it MAY have just been to feed the Illinois construction crony community) then it was a total waste of money. It would be like buying a Lamborghini for a teenager who doesn't know how to drive stick shift!lol

He had the $3.1 million per year to hire top staff, but instead he chose to spend it on old NFL buddies who never coached CFB before, let alone for P5 and top 25 teams. He COULD'VE got those kind of recruiters with the 29th highest staff budget (and probably a million more if he had a plan to hire better staff) but instead he's hiring essentially intern and grad assistant level coaches. Seems he has a lot in common with Cubs management!lol

Lovie's a smart football guy. He's not lazy. What he didn't know about CFB, he has the contacts to learn. Sadly, it seems that building a top 25 team at Illinois just isn't worth the effort to him of dealing with strong, smart staff while laughing all the way to the bank with his $5 million paycheck.

I don't know any aspiring program in the country that would tolerate that, but this is ILLINOIS.

Our only hope is that he's ready to retire and Josh has learned enough about P5 football since he was hired to make a better hire next time around.....

BRucks on April 28 @ 09:11 PM CDT

Lovie has been at his vacation house in Arizona since the middle of March per the News Gazette.

Robert on April 29 @ 07:00 AM CDT

We gave him an $80 million FB facility to build top 30 recruiting classes.

Agreed. With the completion of this NFL draft, everything hamstringing (the program has been removed. He was handed a roster with only two NFL guys (Smoot for one year and Allegretti for three), but now they're all gone and it's his roster. Facilities were near the bottom of the conference and now they're near the top. Even a bowl appearance is now in place. Time to capitalize on all of it.

Lovie's a smart football guy. He's not lazy. What he didn't know about CFB, he has the contacts to learn. Sadly, it seems that building a top 25 team at Illinois just isn't worth the effort to him of dealing with strong, smart staff while laughing all the way to the bank with his $5 million paycheck.

I don't know any aspiring program in the country that would tolerate that, but this is ILLINOIS.

I don't think it's an effort issue. At least not from what I've observed. Seems to me that Whitman and Lovie had a conversation in 2016 and Lovie was told that he'd have time to tear it all down and start over (and I think the same conversation happened with Underwood). I don't think Whitman is "tolerating" his coaches cashing their checks with no effort - I think he's involved in the longform rebuilds. (But that's just how I've observed things - I could be wrong.)

I haven't liked Lovie's coaching hires, and I would have fired Rod Smith after last season, but it's Lovie's call. He gets to assemble the staff however he wants. I said the same when he skipped out on adding a Vic Koenning (a defense whisperer) after the 2018 season and instead named himself defensive coordinator. Hey, sure, fine, but here's the bar you need to clear. He cleared it, barely, and now it's cranked up much higher.

ppbob on May 02 @ 12:52 AM CDT

I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I thought that Lovie was somehow lacking in effort, Robert. From what I've heard he's a hard working guy.

My point was that it takes a lot of effort to deal with REALLY smart and good staff, especially those who actually know more than you about a subject. Some managers are too insecure or intolerant to deal with staff like that. Lovie appears to be in that group. That insecurity often leads the manager to hire weak staff so that none of them can replace him/her. Maybe that's Lovie's strategy for job security since no one on the current staff has the experience or skill to replace him midseason. Is that by design?

When I was in engineering management I took a different approach. I wanted to hire the best and brightest who knew more than me about certain subjects to create a better overall synergy of the team, the antithesis of what seems to be Lovie's approach.

Having followed CFB for about four decades, I've never seem a coach succeed in building a quality team by Lovie's approach of weak hiring to protect his job.

If someone here knows of one, I'd love to hear it...

Southernillini on April 28 @ 07:04 PM CDT

If you're desperate for things to write about, then why absolutely no mention of the coaching turnover in our "flagship" (not really because #golf) basketball program? Not one mention? No ideas on good replacement hires? Nothing???

Robert on April 29 @ 07:15 AM CDT

Are you talking about Jamall Walker leaving? If so, I don't think that's a position that is going to be replaced. Walker was "removed" as an assistant coach last summer to make room for Underwood to hire Stephen Gentry. They created a title for Walker ("defensive coordinator"), but it appears that was just a way to not send him packing in August (when Gentry became available). Walker stayed on until March, found a new job at Grand Canyon, and that's that. I don't think they'll hire anyone for that position (a position that only existed for 8 months).

Southernillini on April 29 @ 07:25 AM CDT

Oh wow I had no idea of any of that. Thank you!

MinnIllini on April 28 @ 07:21 PM CDT

The slow approach to recruiting is foolish. As we sit back and players commit elsewhere our choices dwindle. It hasn’t worked so far. I see no reason that will suddenly change. Take a look at our list of targets. Depressing. This staff cannot recover from such an horrific start. Bowl game, facilities, college staff and none of it will have made a difference.

Robert on April 29 @ 07:32 AM CDT

I'll admit (and this makes me a really bad "journalist") - I haven't look at a list of targets in a few years. I used to look at them obsessively, but then it got to the point where it seemed pointless. I've never subscribed to any of the recruiting sites, so it took a lot of Twitter sleuthing to find the information, and the lists I compiled seemed to not matter much.

In fact, I can tell you the point where it changed for me. I had a pretty good list of 2018 recruiting targets and then Khalan Tolson committed out of nowhere. I remember thinking that if I was going to spend that much time tracking every linebacker we were chasing and then we get a verbal from a player not even on my list, what's the point of having a list at all? Why not just go 1985 and wait to review the players once they commit to Illinois?

The Olaf Rules on April 28 @ 10:00 PM CDT

It’s another make or break season in my mind. Worst case scenario is missing a bowl game, which likely gets Lovie fired. But what he will live behind — better talent on roster, beautiful training center, and no taint of scandal — will be a lot better than what he started with.

Robert on April 29 @ 07:37 AM CDT

For what it's worth, I think Lovie gets fired at 6-6. Or at least he "chooses to retire". I don't think Whitman would tolerate a rebuild that crests at 6-6 and then goes back down. There's no point in sacrificing 2017 and 2018 so that 2019 and 2020 could be a slingshot forward if 2019 and 2020 both finish 6-6.

uilaw71 on April 29 @ 08:31 AM CDT

Logged in as soon as I read the title, fully expecting you to woodshed the naysayers. Instead, find you laying the groundwork for an “I told you so” article come January. Why not just post 63-0 and move on? You’re better than this, Robert.

thumpasaurus on April 29 @ 12:41 PM CDT

perhaps robert understands that there are logically sound reasons one might say "nay" at this point.

there's plenty of evidence to suggest that we're in position to repeat the journey of 2011-2012 in 2020-21.

perhaps lovie's approach could indeed net a program-changing recruiting class this time. it is overwhelmingly likelier that it doesn't, and the evidence for that is that it hasn't yet happened.

Robert on April 29 @ 01:31 PM CDT

Trust me, uilaw71, if Lovie is fired, the last person with the ability to "told you so" would be me.

I've delivered the same "it can still be done" message for four years now. My post in January would simply say "it couldn't be done". Or, more accurately, "he couldn't do it".

neale stoner on April 29 @ 12:32 PM CDT

Remember that the new $80 million facility is closed and no one can visit

uofi08 on April 29 @ 01:11 PM CDT

Trying to justify Lovie's recruiting approach as "slow and methodical" is just not seeing the forest through the trees at this point. It's not like he's only targeting kids that are committing very late. They've been recruiting plenty of prospects that decide early, they've just literally missed on nearly all of them. A majority of Illinois high school kids commit "early" and Lovie and his staff has usually offered many of them. They just plain miss on nearly all of them. That's a recruiting failure, not a recruiting approach. This is probably the worst recruiting staff at Illinois for the last maybe 20 years. I can only personally go back to the last few years of Turner. Zook was obviously a recruiting genius. And Beckman, while not a strong recruiter, was significantly hamstrung by facilities and lack of support. Lovie has been given every possible advantage that previous staffs never received.

Robert on April 29 @ 01:49 PM CDT

Why do you see it as justification? Isn't it simply observation?

I just looked for something I wrote a few years ago but now I can't find it. It was about how, once Lovie arrived, all tweets from recruits after spring visits starting saying "can't wait to be back" and things like that (where before, under Beckman, we didn't hear that phrase). I theorized that early on, Lovie doesn't even push for commitments. He wants a long evaluation period (from both sides) to see if it's a "fit".

That's not justification - I certainly wouldn't go about it that way, and our best recruiter of the last 30 years (Zook) absolutely didn't go about it that way. But that's why I think Lovie classes are slow to develop. That's my guess as to why.

uofi08 on April 29 @ 05:39 PM CDT

I guess I call it as justification because of the way you always describe it as his recruiting approach. I’m arguing it’s not his approach, it’s just what happens when you’re a bad recruiter and don’t change your strategy. I’ve never been a college football coach, but I have to imagine every commitment doesn’t come out of nowhere. Coaches know if a player might commit early or drag it out. And really if they don’t at least have a feel for it, they aren’t cut out for the job. Lovie tends to offer plenty of instate kids that end up committing early elsewhere. Obviously he probably wants these kids, he just can’t close the recruitments. He signs his class late because he’s not good at recruiting and/or his staff is lacking recruiting awareness and ability. Any coach would love to have good recruits on board early. Waiting is a complete disadvantage as you’re relying on late bloomers and decomits.

I remember all the excitement when Lovie was hired. I was convinced he’d bring in top 30-40 classes, especially once the new facility was announced.

Bear8287 on April 30 @ 06:07 AM CDT

I just looked for something I wrote a few years ago but now I can't find it.

If there are plans to upgrade the site, including a search function would be a really nice addition.

Nashvegas Illini on April 29 @ 02:59 PM CDT

I guess I'm a little different. I'm happy with Lovie's growth as college coach and a recruiter but like everyone else I have a few more questions.


Can Lovie and staff consistently recruit the quality of D Ends he needs to win? (If Bobby Roundtree plays I would guess we win 2 more games)

Will the St Louis pipeline continue? Coach Paterson has done and outstanding job but can he close on anyone in St Louis that he hasn't coached? Travien Ford is our top target in the STL for 2021. Close him and that would be a big step in the right direction.

How can the defense keep up the growth? The defense needs to continue to grow as a run stuffing group and getting more penetration thru the Dline would be great but Lovie's secondary is where I'm really concerned. Do we have 2 safeties on the roster that we trust?

UofIL6 on April 30 @ 01:30 PM CDT

Unfortunately, Ford just committed to Mizzou, and looks like a few more top players from ESL are about to do the same. Things are not good recruiting wise

IBFan on April 30 @ 01:47 AM CDT

Looking at 2019 class how can anyone honestly look at the talent that was brought in and say it was a failure? Also just because the staff doesn’t feed you all the info you want as a fan about recruiting doesn’t mean they aren’t working, don’t have a plan, or are incompetent. Unlike Robert I follow the social media of all the shout outs from recruits, the pay sites, the free sites, other bloggers, etc.etc. and I never thought the stud was coming from Miami. People just have to get used to the era of the transfer portal. Also, in-state means absolutely nothing. Players go wherever the best fit is and coaches get the best players they can.
Fire Lovie at 6 wins...smh. Beat Wisconsin, beat Sparty on road, go to a bowl then next year go to another bowl and you would let him go? That’s not stability. This program has sucked more or less in a lot of ways for decades and I’m not sure that 6 wins and a bowl should be considered a failure. Yes, I know they want and expect more. Also, just because you think there’s a cliff after 2020 doesn’t mean there is one. (I see the Seniors) Don’t you think they should play the 21 season and see results before firing people?

uofi08 on April 30 @ 09:51 AM CDT

I guess my question to you and other fans that share your thoughts, is what do you want out of your program? Based on your comments, how did you feel about Beckman? That’s basically what we’re getting with Lovie. Everyone was excited about Lovie because we thought he’d elevate the program but he’s barely treading water. If you wanted Beckman gone, why would you think Lovie is going a good job? Is building for 4 terrible years to reach 6 wins, with a lot of luck, really building a good program?

Brave Illini on April 30 @ 08:38 AM CDT

The comments on this post are what help make this site so rich. Solid, informed, logic and fact based, but diverse viewpoints. My take is that Lovie and his coaches have not achieved objectives in recruiting H.S. players. Remember how he used to emphasize the importance of recruiting Illinois kids, to get them to want to come to the State Flagship University. He also emphasized St. Louis and Indianapolis. I'd say the lack of success in that aspect of recruiting has been a significant disappointment. Although St. Louis is still an active area. Beyond that, it is frustrating that Lovie doesn't let fans and others see "behind the curtain" more, to inform us all about the coaches' activities and efforts. We're starved for information which we're not getting. It's human nature to fill such a void with negative assumptions. But I take a lot of solace in Whitman's reassurances that Lovie and his Staff are doing what they should be to make the football program a success. For one, I will not be at all satisfied to rise up just to be competitive with the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin. My sights are set higher, and we've proven that Illinois can be a top echelon program. I hope, and believe, Whitman shares that vision and will not settle for less.

illiniu on April 30 @ 03:11 PM CDT

Got a quality Illini facemask today on-line. Really well made. What/where are IB rules? Can I mention name of seller or site for those interested? I'm not associated with the supplier in any way. Thanks.

Robert on April 30 @ 07:48 PM CDT

Name away.

iluvrt on April 30 @ 03:25 PM CDT

Lots of great hot takes in the responses to this article. These have all been posted on other sites and this one 1,000 times.

IBFan on April 30 @ 08:55 PM CDT

I love hot cakes

illiniu on May 01 @ 10:58 AM CDT

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illiniu on May 01 @ 11:03 AM CDT

I forgot: mask is handmade, homemade, quality stitching in USA!

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