Bret Bielema and Josh Whitman have overhauled the Illinois Fighting Illini football program.
With a renewed focus on in-state recruiting, the University of Illinois is truly living up to its name. In particular, Coach Bielema has re-established strong connections with the Chicago Catholic League and “downstate” powerhouses. The Bret signal has even flashed in the skies of rival states, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.
But the improved consistency in recruiting has to be paired with victories on the field.
Last season in Charlottesville, Illinois suffered a miserable defeat. But there’s a lesson to be gained from that loss: recruit like the Cavaliers.
Think about how similar the two schools are:
- Both are elite academic public universities.
- Both wear navy/blue and orange.
- Both are considered afterthoughts to the powerhouses in their conference.
- Both have transitioned coaches recently.
- Both are “basketball schools*”
In their 2021 recruiting class, Virginia showed the exact blueprint for sustained—and attainable—recruiting success at Illinois.
According to the 247 Rankings, Virginia’s class had three 4-star recruits. Two of them were in-state prospects. The next 10 players carried 3-star rankings, but were all top-1,000 players. In other words, they stacked their class with no-doubt Power 5 players who are obtainable for the non-blue bloods of the world.
(Their transfer portal haul also included Illini killer and current Indianapolis Colts tight end Jelani Woods.)
Illinois has its work cut out for them if it wants its football program to consistently compete against Wisconsin and Iowa. But Virginia has shown the recruiting blueprint that the Illini can follow while evolving as what Coach Bielema calls a “player development program.”
The first two full classes of the current regime coupled with the emphasis on coaches who are equally adept as recruiters and teachers have created cautious optimism within a fanbase not known for caution or optimism.
Perhaps a more Cavalier attitude on the recruiting trail will create the on-field victories that justify said optimism.
*Illinois is actually a #golfschool.