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The Turf Is Greener Outside Illinois

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Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach on July 8, 2010, and Cleveland basketball fans felt – to a much greater extent of course – how University of Illinois football fans feel every February when top prep talent jumps the state.

James’ choice to take the easier road is one all too common in today’s sports society, and it’s the bane of existence for many programs at state schools trying to recruit local talent.

Let’s not call it right or wrong. Let’s just call it a trend. And while many schools can surely make the same argument, Illinois'  track record defines the point.

First, Illinois is not a program without a coat rack. The Illini have a few things on which to hang their collective hat – a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008, Sugar Bowl in 2002, and successful recent graduations into the NFL (Pierre Thomas, Brandon Lloyd, Steve Weatherford, Rashard Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure, Whitney Mercilus) – all in the past decade. That should be enough recruitment fodder to attract more a share of the talent, and maybe a smidge more.

But it’s not.

Of the 2013 Illinois high-school grads, the Illini pulled one (No. 5) recruit in the top 10 (Rivals.com), two in the top 15, and five in the top 30.

That is arguably the worst local haul by anyBig Ten state school, on par with Minnesota, which also pulled one top-10 recruit.  (Purdue has two top-20 recruits.)

Obviously, the big draws are Ohio State and Michigan. The programs have the history, facilities, current talent, coaching and pedigree. OSU landed five recruits in Ohio's top 15, including the top three talents. Michigan secured six of 15 and four in the top six.

Understandable.

Second-tier schools Wisconsin and Iowa also didn’t fare so badly with the Badgers collecting five of the top 15 recruits in their state, including Nos. 1 and 2. The Big Ten’s newest program, Nebraska, has the top recruit in its state.

Then there’s Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois. Indiana had one of its best recruiting seasons of recent memory, securing four top-15 state talents and five in the top 20. It also had four total four-star recruits.

The question is why. Answer No. 1 could be the resurgence of Northwestern. But the Wildcats are doing more with less. They are not pulling top state talent. In the 2013 class, two of Illinois’ top 20 chose NU.

Plus, for instance, Indiana has Purdue, Notre Dame and Ball State as in-state competition. It should impact the Hoosiers’ class more than the Illini’s. It hasn’t.

Of the top 35 recruits out of Illinois, five chose U of I, four NU, three Iowa, two Wisconsin, two Michigan and one each Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Michigan State. Some are still undecided, but 12 picked to go outside the Big Ten (Southern and Northern Illinois), including the Nos. 1-3.

Is Illinois as attractive as USC or LSU? No, not on paper, but if the Illini want to compete year in and out, it has to draw talent from the state year in and out. A lot of it has to do with the mindset of these young men, who want to be a success, and despite Illinois’ history, the recruiters must not convey that well enough.

Pride – for where you come from and for your state – is not as big of a factor any more. In 2003, Illinois recruited nine high-schoolers ranked in the state’s top 25. Ten years later, it was down to three. They haven’t had a five-star player since 2007 (Arrelious Benn) and picked up just three four-star recruits in a three-year span from 2010-12.

Illinois finished 9-4 in '07 and lost to USC, 49-17, in the Rose Bowl. Since then?

2008: 5-7
2009: 3-9
2010: 7-6
2011: 7-6
2012: 2-10

Bottom line is more talent equals more success. Illinois needs to do better on its home turf. It may not be a point of pride for recruits anymore, but it needs to be one for them.

Or, each signing day will be another microcosm of Cleveland 2010.