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State Loyalty

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Stay inside the invisible lines, kids.

Rutgers v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

How dare a kid bestowed with such limitless kinetic potential decide to leave the state for college! Doesn’t said recruit understand — without that enriching air, would he be as tall? Without that superior water, would he be as fast? Without quality local produce, would he be as strong? And without the same friends and townsmen clapping at games, would his bright athletic future even be possible?

Well, the answer to all these ridiculous questions is “most assuredly”. So, why do so many fans suggest that recruits who are just following their hearts, best judgement or even in some cases a big bag of promised benefits, are violating some unwritten law about spurning your state school? Recruiting season after recruiting season, both football and basketball, Illinois prep stars will undoubtedly leave the state for various reasons, and upon doing so face the tweet wrath of upset fans.

But Illinois fans, try and realize that this is not just an Illini epidemic. And as it relates to such a specialized and dangerous sport, football recruits have a deeply scientific decision ahead of them. State loyalty does exist in pockets around the country, but it usually follows a basic equation.

First, let me start by exploring the status quo: Absolutely zero loyalty whatsoever.

Born and raised in New Jersey, to me the notion of state loyalty for collegiate sports is nonexistent — a funny joke at best, a depressing impossibility at worst. My best friends grew up rooting for Notre Dame, Florida State and Penn State for football and Duke, Georgetown, North Carolina and Syracuse for basketball; the infrequent Rutgers sweatshirt was always greeted with targeted mocking. It’s very hard to be a fan of the local school that never wins, and it’s even harder to be a stud recruit watching the NFL draft and deciding to attend a school they didn’t hear mentioned once.

Just a couple of weeks ago Quentin Nelson (Notre Dame) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama) represented New Jersey in the first round of the NFL Draft. Last year, it was Hasaan Reddick (Temple), Jabrill Peppers (Michigan) and David Njoku (Miami). Like clockwork, kids who didn’t attend Rutgers but grew up within an hour from the campus get drafted into the NFL, which brings me to my next point: Illinois high school football is generally pretty bad at creating football talent. In general, the coaching staff is going to “unloyally” offer the scholarship to the kid from Florida or Texas, rather than offer it to the MAC player in their backyard.

When you’re the rare 5-star Illinois kid, it’s now your turn to hold the cards, and your athletic gifts allow you a choice. After doing all your homework, is Illinois the place that offers you the clearest and most believable path to your goals? With a certain level of recruit, that answer can be “no”, and that’s all right, as it was when Nelson and Fitzpatrick decided Notre Dame and Alabama were better nurturers of football talent (and ended up being right).

In some states an outside recruiting presence has a harder time convincing a blue-chipper that boarding a plane is the better path to greatness. Not surprisingly, places like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Ohio are keeping the best kids in state. What’s the common denominator with those states? They have big money football programs that win and put kids in the NFL. The number of scholarships a school like Georgia can offer creates scarcity, and instead of kids filling their deck with the who’s who in college football, Kirby Smart can fill his class with studs and create actual worry for an in-state prospect that he better commit to preserve the spot. It’s a lot easier for a Top-100 linebacker to pick the state school when his Top-100 buddies have done it for years, and stop by practice in their Range Rovers to tour the old stompin’ grounds.

Besides for some simple economics, a recruit wants to justify their hard work by rewarding their talents and rankings, by following the example of people like him prior.

Those schools with the greatest state loyalty also seem to exist in the south, where professional sports franchises aren’t as prolific. Alabama doesn’t have professional football, basketball, baseball or hockey. The only shows in town are Crimson Tide and Tiger football, and kids have grown up idolizing those players as gods, the same way we might have Michael Jordan or John Elway. When there aren’t brighter lights, Nick Saban’s recruiting pitch can carry extra emotional magnetism.

So after saying it’s ridiculous for an Illinois fan to expect in-state prospects to attend college based on invisible lines but that state loyalty does exist elsewhere, how do you get there?

As Al Davis said, “Just win, baby.” Win, win, and keeping winning.

Build a program that allows for #WeWillWin to be tweeted out without irony.

Once those scholarships start to mean something, kids who have waited for other offers will pop and kids who had a draw to Illinois but didn’t want to be treated like the friend with the Rutgers sweatshirt won’t have to fret.

Eventually it won’t only be cool to live in Littyville — it’ll be a smart business decision.