In recent memory Illinois has been known for its basketball prowess. Some of the greatest teams in history, legendary coaches like Lou Henson, and a few big-name players in the NBA.
Football, in that same recent memory, has had quite the opposite reputation.
That is not the question here, however. Throwing all of that out, which program has been better at producing talent to play at the next level?
Biggest Names: Deron Williams, Eddie Johnson, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Don Ohl, Andy Phillip
Several All-Stars on this list and it’s just scratching the surface. The 2004-05 Illini team alone had five different players play in the NBA in some capacity, and that’s just one team.
Looking at just numbers, of course football has more pros overall, but that’s just because football teams have much bigger rosters.
While there have been great players after leaving Illinois, there have also been many Illini legends who had most of their success during college.
Kofi Cockburn, Frank Williams, Trent Frazier, all guys who were amazing in recent years and legends in the Fighting Illini uniform, but their games didn’t translate to the NBA.
When it comes to the pros, it seems like Illinois has produced countless players who were just “good” and never got to the next level of NBA play. The best of the best of the Illini average about 15 a game, which is good, but not great. The football legends get over that hump.
Biggest Names: Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, George Halas, Bobby Mitchell, Simeon Rice
Red Grange and Dick Butkus are NFL icons and two of the greatest to ever play the game, no questioning that. When you think of football players who went to Illinois, these are usually two of the first to come to mind.
These two players to football are more than Illinois basketball has produced no doubt, but one played in the 1960s and the other was inducted into the very first Hall of Fame class, so they don't get full credit.
But these two aren’t even the only Hall of Famers for the Illini, as six different Pro Football HOFers have graduated from Illinois. HOWEVER, back to the point before, the most recent of this group was Bobby Mitchell, who was inducted in 1983.
But after this earlier time period, the football team has followed suit with basketball, producing a bunch of players who topped out in the NFL at the “good” level. David Diehl, Simeon Rice, Jeff George and many others fit right into that tier.
Players in the League: Ayo Dosumnu, Brandon Podziemski (Doesn’t entirely count)
Notable Players Overseas/G-League: Kofi Cockburn (KBL), Andres Feliz (Spanish ACB), Malcolm Hill (G-League), Trent Frazier (VTB United)
Ayo is currently the only true former Illinois basketball player in the league, and he’s been perfectly consistent at 8-9 points through his first three years with the Bulls. He was a national player of the year contender and legend at Illinois, but sometimes college play doesn't directly translate, which is why he was drafted in the second round despite his resume.
Outside of Ayo, the number of players playing overseas or in the G-League is in the double digits. Players like Malcolm Hill and Kofi Cockburn led the Illini at points in their career, but are still looking for chances in the NBA.
Many recent familiar faces are still playing overseas — Kipper Nichols, Andres Feliz, Frazier, Matthew Mayer (G-League), Brandon Paul — but none of them have been able to find their own footing in the league.
Ayo is a young role player who has the ability and promise to make it bigger, but outside of that, the talent that has graduated in recent years haven’t been able to replicate their success in the NBA, no matter how good the Illini have been.
Players in the League: Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin, Sydney Brown, Kerby Joseph, Nate Hobbs, Chase Brown, +16 more
The complete opposite of the direction of basketball at this point. Outside of one good season, the team has been pretty lackluster. However, the talent that Illini football has been able to produce in the last few years is surprisingly very impressive.
Devon Witherspoon was the No. 5 pick in the 2023 draft, and one of, if not the, frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Quan Martin, Sydney Brown, Kerby Joseph, Nate Hobbs, all defensive backs who were also recently on the team and have made name for themselves on their own teams.
Defensive backs are what have succeeded in the NFL recently for the most part, but that’s not entirely it. Nick Allegretti, Ted Karras, and even Tommy DeVito have carved out roles for themselves and had some sort of success, even if it was brief.
Before this surge of NFL success that came out of the football program, I would have given the edge to basketball, who has been able to consistently churn out good and successful role-starter level players, but taking into account the early Hall of Famers and recent string of top level DBs, Illinois football is the leader of taking its players to the next level.