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So You Want To Build A College Football Program...

An explanation of why the Illini fail to find consistency and how they can fix this..

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NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever I talk about Illinois Football with non-Illini fans, the conversation quickly turns into to why the Illini struggle to find consistent success. How could a Big Ten university with nearly 50,000 students that is nestled equidistant between St. Louis and Chicago continually struggle to put together a consistent winner? What is Illini Football lacking?

That got me thinking about what attributes lead to consistency for college football programs. What I found is that there are numerous attributes and the consistent programs have many different types of attributes.

For example, you will see that both Alabama and Ohio State have...

  • Flagship university status
  • Fertile recruiting areas
  • Coaching stability
  • Superior scheme

Or Iowa...

  • Coaching stability

Even Wisconsin...

  • Coaching stability
  • Vertical integration

Readers should think of these attributes as the skill sets that college football programs bring to the college football landscape. The ones that blend together and stack the most skills are the ones at the top.

The attributes are broken down into three categories:

1. Attributes that lead to stability;

2. Attributes that lead to psuedo-stability; and

3. Willingness to use exploitative strategies that are effective but do not necessarily lead to stability.


Be a Historical Power

Notre Dame V Southern California

You know who they are. These are the schools that have big stadiums, rabid fanbases, and decades of tradition. They were good during or around World War II and have put elite runs together in the decades since to cement themselves among CFB royalty. They might fall off but when they do fall off, they tend to come back quickly. Even when they are down, these jobs remain desirable. For general reference, the AP came out with an all-time ranking a few years ago. So, the top eight teams on that list made this list.

Schools on this list: Notre Dame; Alabama; Texas; Oklahoma; Michigan; Ohio State; USC; Nebraska, although several question whether the Huskers still belong on this list.

Can the Illini be one of these? No. This list is pretty much set in stone and while teams might fall out of it, very fall into this list. The Illini have a chance to be one of these program in the ‘50s, but the bottom has fallen out of the program every decade since the 1960’s. The Illini would need 30-40 years of consistency and stability to get on this list.

For those of you counting at home, that’d be 2060. Lovie would be 102.

Be a Flagship University (or a Land-Grant University) in a Talent-Rich State

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Recruiting is obviously important. So, being the flagship university in a fertile recruiting state is a tremendous built-in advantage because these universities are the schools that have wielded the most influence in their states for centuries. That influence has helped the the flagship become a football power which then turns the flagship into a destination for in-state high school recruits.

To determine what states made this list, I used this ranking put together by our mother site a few years ago. I cut the list off at Louisiana. I also included more than one public university in talent-rich states like Florida and Texas because of the prevalence of talent in those states. I also kept California public universities out of this since Cal and UCLA do not seem to yield the same football prowess that schools that other talent-rich states seem to yield. In other words, there’s an element of good ole’ boy politics with schools in the south and Ohio that is not around in California and, to me, this makes a difference.

Schools on this list: Florida; Florida State; Georgia; Texas; Texas A&M, Ohio State; LSU

Can the Illini be one these? Maybe. Illinois meets the flagship criteria, but the state of Illinois is not one that recruiting services consider fertile for recruiting. Although, I personally think recruiting services tend to underrate players in northern states and overrate players in sun-belt states, Illinois does not produce a ton of blue-chip talent. The blue-chip talent that is in the state, however, tends to leave the state.

Still, if the Illini could lock down the top talent in Illinois, they would be in a much better place than they are now. So, controlling Illinois is a must for the Illini to find consistency. Unfortunately for the Illini, every Big Ten school poaches talent out of Illinois and Notre Dame has always been a thorn in the Illini’s side because the Irish have created a seemingly impenetrable pipeline to the famous Chicago Catholic League (CCL) and the tough East Suburban Catholic Conference (ESCC).

This, however, could change as the Illinois High School Association will be creating a new district format that will force CCL and ESCC schools to play more schools outside these conferences:

Beginning in 2021, high school football in Illinois is going to look a lot different. Instead of playing the traditional [Chicago Catholic League] conference games, schools will be assigned to eight- or nine-team districts by the Illinois High School Association. District assignments will be based on school enrollments and geography. Classic Catholic League rivalries will be diminished.

Whether it’s Littyville (or Join The Fight), Illinois needs to create some kind of identity to encourage kids to play for their home state.

Be a Flagship University (or a Land-Grant University) bordering a Talent-Rich State

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson Celebration Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

If a school is not in one of the talent-rich states, being close to (or bordering) is the next best thing.

Schools on this list: Tennessee; Michigan; Clemson; Alabama; Auburn; Oklahoma, Penn St.; Oregon; South Carolina; Arizona; Arizona St.

How does this apply to the Illini? The Illini do not border a talent-rich state, so this makes it difficult when they strike out in-state. They have, nonetheless, tried to recruit St. Louis— an area that does tend to produce a few gems every cycle. So, continuing to get those gems out of St. Louis remains a must.

Hire a coach who will be at your school for at least a decade

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi State vs Iowa Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hiring a coach who will be at your schools for 10-plus years is easier said than done, but if you do find one of these gems, who is both a good coach and loyal, your school will have a solid foundation for success. The list below, while not exhaustive of all the coaches who have been at a program for over a decade, demonstrates some of the programs that have benefited from coaching stability.

Schools on this list: Iowa under Frey and Ferentz; Michigan under Schembechler and Carr; Florida State under Bowden; Missouri under Pinkel; Ohio State under Hayes/Bruce/Cooper/Tressel/Meyer; Florida under Spurrier; Northwestern under Fitzgerald, Kansas State under Snyder; Michigan State under Dantonio; Wisconsin under Alvarez; Nebraska under Devaney and Osborne; Clemson under Swinney

Can the Illini be one of these? The Illini could simply be such a program because if Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern can find coaching stability, there is no reason the Illini cannot. Again, this is easier said than done and keeping a good coach around requires luck and the administrative ability to build loyalty with a coach.


Be somewhat academically prestigious and in a talent-rich metropolitan area

NCAA Football: Miami Spring Game Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of being a flagship university in a state with lots of high school talent. But, public universities are not the only ones who succeed in CFB. Private schools or an academically elite public university in a talent rich metropolitan areas can also add a layer of stability to its program if it play its cards right.

The metropolitan areas that produce the most high school talent are Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach; Greater LA; Atlanta; Houston; and Dallas. When a local university in these areas connects with the local HS talent — in a way that makes the local university become an aspiration for local HS talent — then it can become a destination for elite HS talent.

Schools on this list: Miami; USC; UCLA; Georgia Tech; SMU; TCU.

Can the Illini be one these? No; Champaign-Urbana is rural.

Punch your way up

Boise State v Georgia

These are the schools that did it the old-fashioned way. They were not friends with the right people 100 years ago. They were not born on third base. These schools rolled up their sleeves, used good old-fashioned work ethic, and built consistent football programs from scratch. They scheduled tough. They played big programs without requiring return home games. They eventually ended up in a power conference, or in the case of Boise St. or BYU, they became preeminent programs at the Mid-Major level. In addition, I have a theory that these programs have a built-in chip on their shoulder that leads to an element of institutional renegade which, in turn, creates a unique form of stability. This institutional renegade mentality mirrors that of a company like Apple in the early-80s when Steve Jobs had them pirating around Silicon Valley.

Schools on this list: Miami; Florida State; Boise St; Utah; TCU; BYU; and Louisville.

Can the Illini be one of these? The Illini, by being a founding member in the Big Ten, are precluded from this list. I know it rarely feels like it but the Illini are part of the “Man.” But, if the Illini can find a renegade edge, it will certainly help. But keep in mind, being renegade is unbecoming of a member of the gentlemanly Big Ten.

Think of Northwestern. With Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats were able to take on this moniker and actually become pretty good.

Have an Oligarch Benefactor

University of Florida v Duke University Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

As evidenced by English Soccer, spending a ton of money without the correct systems can be a futile and frustrating exercise. However, when big spending meets good systems and tactics, like Manchester City and Liverpool have demonstrated recently, good things can happen.

College football is no different. Oklahoma State, with only T. Boone Pickens’ money is hovering near the bottom of the Big 12 as it has for a large portion of its history. But, when you couple that money with Mike Gundy’s ability to run a program, then you can create something special. The same can be said for Oregon under Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly. Maryland has not found the right coach but when they do, they should look like the other two.

Schools on this list: Oklahoma State (T. Boone Pickens), Maryland (Under-Armour) and Oregon (Nike).

Can the Illini be on this list? Yes, they have vast alumni, numerous successful alumni, and some wealthy alumni who are willing to donate. They just need to find that right mix of die hard fan who is going to devote a large portion of their wealth and enterprise to Illini Athletics.

Shad Khan. Please.

Vertical Integration

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin’s football success since 1993 is difficult to understand and put in a framework of how we think about success in college football. The Badgers aren’t in a talent-rich state, they don’t recruit blue-chip players, and they aren’t a historical power. Yet, year in and year out, they are one of the most consistent programs. The Badgers do this because of Barry Alvarez’s unique approach to building a football program, which he borrowed from Tom Osborne’s Nebraska.

Basically, Wisconsin Football is vertically integrated from the high school level up. A lot of the high schools in Wisconsin run the exact same system the Badgers run. This allows the Badgers to consistently get their hands on road grading offensive lineman, and it allows for a seamless transition from being a Wisconsin high school player to playing at UW-Madison and it allows them to make better use of walk-ons than any other program in America.

Similarly, at Nebraska, Tom Osborne taught all the high school coaches in the state how to run the vaunted Nebraska option and he developed a walk-on program that was the envy of CFB.

Kansas State, under Bill Snyder, has used a similar vertical integration strategy with the renowned Kansas JUCO-System.

Schools on this List: Nebraska under Tom Osborne; Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez; Kansas State under Bill Snyder.

Can the Illini be on this list? They can and they pretty much have to try to get on this list. I’ve always thought that vertical integration is the key path for the Illini to find consistency and stability. Now, I cannot exactly explain what Osborne, Alvarez and Snyder did to vertically integrate their programs. Did they have closed door meetings with their respective states’ high school (or JUCO) Football Associations? Did they have numerous coaching clinics with the high school coaches in the state to teach tactics? The exact details are murky and probably proprietorially protected inside their football offices. But, one common thread with the programs that have vertically integrated is that they played to their state’s strengths.

In Nebraska and Wisconsin, this strength was (and is) big agile offensive lineman, walk-on fullbacks ready to contribute from day one, and tight ends. In Kansas, this strength is the most talent laden Junior College system in America.

This is the model the Illini have to follow. Figuring out how to execute this, however, is easier said than done.

Hire a coach who is schematically superior

SEC Champs Spurrier

Having an evil genius coach will do wonders for program stability. This is obvious. However, this attribute is in the psuedo-stability category because these coaches are frequently poached for the NFL or bigger jobs.

Schools on this List: There are numerous examples but the most well known are Florida under Spurrier and Meyer; Nebraska under Osborne; Oregon under Chip Kelly; Boise State under Chris Peterson; Missouri under Pinkel; Mississippi State under Dan Mullen; LSU under Saban; Alabama under Saban; Texas Tech and Washington State under Leach. We can also put Clemson on this list because of the tactically superior assistants (Morris, Venables, Elliot) they have hired.

Can the Illini do this? Absolutely, but the administration has to have a good eye for up and comers, which certainly has not been the trend. If you look at the Illini’s outside football hires in the past thirty years, they have been a combination of NFL retreads (John Mackovic and Lovie Smith), uninspiring NFL assistants (Ron Turner), and a coach that failed at a bigger program (Ron Zook).

To their credit, the Illini did try to nab an up and comer from a smaller school, who was thought to be schematically superior, in Tim Beckman. But as it turns out, Beckman was not the brains of the operation at Toledo. Nonetheless, the Illini were on the right track with the Beckman hire and should go this route again. But, this time, they must truly assess if they are hiring a coach that is being propped up by a superior assistant — like Matt Campbell with Tim Beckman — or if they hiring the true brains of the operation.


Embrace the JUCOs

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Schools on this List: There are numerous schools on this list with Kansas St. being the most prominent example of building through JUCO. Another example of building through JUCO was Oregon State under Mike Riley and Dennis Erickson.

Can the Illini do this? Of course and they did this in the ‘60s and the ‘80s, but relying on JUCO players is a tricky proposition. Ideally, the Illini will supplement recruiting classes with JUCO players. Relying on JUCO alone is never a stable strategy. However, if you can blend JUCO recruiting with a more stable attribute such as vertically integration, like Snyder did at Kansas St, then this becomes a more stable strategy.

Hire Good Bagmen

Schools on this List: The Entire SEC, The Old Southwest Conference including SMU,...

Have a Pipeline

Schools on this list: There are numerous. Notre Dame famously had a pipeline at Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, which led to the ill-fated hire of Jerry Faust in the early-’80s, and numerous Catholic high school powers in the country. Ohio State had a pipeline at Glenville in Cleveland during the Jim Tressel era. Miami had a pipeline to the inner-city schools north of Downtown Miami (Northwestern, Carol City, Edison, etc.) during its ‘80s heyday and in its resurrection in the early 2000s.

Can the Illini do this? Yes, they can. The Illini sort of have a pipeline to Trinity in St. Louis. So, this is possible but a pipeline out of Chicago would be nice too. Hiring someone with local connections, similar to the hire of Corey Patterson from St. Louis, is an easy way to build a pipeline. Another way is to identify individuals with connections and influence with local recruits bring, such as 7-on-7 coaches, local trainers who train elite prospects, and HS coaches. Then, open the door for them into college coaching by finding off-the-field roles for them inside Illini Football.

Embrace the Portal

The Transfer Portal is new and has really mixed up roster management in CFB. The Illini have played their hand in the portal by landing blue-chip TE Luke Ford from Georgia and blue-chip WR Josh Imatorbhebhe from USC. They also nearly nabbed star WR Jeff Thomas from Miami. So, like JUCOs, the Illini should continue being aggressive in the Portal to supplement their recruiting.

Lessons Learned for the Illini

In summary, here are the things the Illini have to do find stability and consistency.

  • Stop hiring NFL re-treads and coaches dumped from bigger programs;
  • Find their Barry Alvarez and vertically integrate AND/OR get good at hiring up and comers whose schemes are leading to great success at lower levels and make sure they hire the brains of the operation and not the doofus figurehead i.e. Tim Beckman or Dan Hawkins;
  • The administration must go all in if they hire the right coach;
  • Use the Illinois High School Association’s new format to create a new loyalty in Illinois in an effort to lock down the few blue chip recruits in Illinois and the high three-star recruits;
  • Build on the pipeline in St. Louis and work toward developing one in Chicago by hiring individuals with connections to recruits in these areas and finding roles for these individuals inside the Illini football program;
  • Use JUCOs and continue using the Transfer Portal to supplement recruiting;
  • Keep an eye out for a willing Oligarch benefactor and embrace them if they want to help.