By Joe Henricksen
If diehard Illinois basketball fans can just forget about what is happening on the court this season, look past the recruiting failures of the last few years, they can find some healing. Yes, the committed players to Bruce Weber definitely helps ease the fact the program went from a national championship game to, well, what we're seeing now in such a short time. But it can't be underestimated the perfect move Weber made with the hiring of Jerrance Howard and what it has meant to the program.
Looking at it more closely, where would Weber and the future of the program be right now without Howard? Some will say it was a bit coincidental everything fell into place on the recruiting front once Howard was hired. That's up for debate. But the facts are....
Jerrance Howard is the biggest reason Alex Legion is at Illinois. Howard and Legion connected from day one at Kentucky, spent countless hours together there in a short period of time and, when things went south in Lexington for Legion, he was on his way to Champaign to join a coach he considers to be like a big brother.
While not discounting the impact Wayne McClain had on the recruitment of Peoria Central's D.J. Richardson -- D.J.'s dad is very fond of and greatly respects McClain -- adding Howard, a Peoria Central grad, greatly enhanced Illinois' chances. There are some who say Richardson was going to Illinois all along. There are others who have told me it was clearly up in the air but Howard finished it off.
If Richardson, who is sort of the pied piper of the class with how he is connected and communicates with players around the state, had not committed when he did, who knows if the dominoes that followed -- Warren's Brandon Paul and Sterling's Joseph Bertrand committing -- would have followed so closely. Momentum and timing were huge for Illinois in that recruiting flurry.
And then there is Crandall Head of Rich South, who the Hoops Report believes is the equal of prize commitment Jereme Richmond of Waukegan as far as a future prospect is concerned. Luther Head, Crandall's brother and major influence, is so close to Howard from their days together in Champaign he was in Howard's wedding last August.
In all of these recruiting scenarios, Howard fit like a hand in a glove.
But it's more than just the aforementioned quests and conquers in the recruiting world. I have now spoken with dozens of people, ranging from AAU coaches to high school coaches to committed players to non-committed players, about Jerrance Howard. And the truth is I have yet to find one person to say a bad thing about the guy. The lone negative has been "a little inexperienced."
The superlatives thrown around by anyone labeled as a good recruiter/assistant coach -- outgoing, passionate, energetic, enthusiastic, bubbly -- are all true in Howard's case. But when talking with everyone involved, the common denominator has been personal relationships and sincerity. And that's exactly what Howard says when we speak of recruiting. When talking about recruiting with Howard, he always points out in our conversations how he wants to "establish personal relationships, take care of our guys and sell the university on my own personal experiences."
And the connections for such a young coach go a long way. And it starts with Larry Butler, the prominent AAU coach of the Illinois Warriors program. The Butler/Weber/Illinois relationship has been strained in the past, to say the least. While that relationship has improved (a blog on that in the future), the band-aide can maybe finally come off in the near future and be completely healed with the arrival of Howard. Larry Butler thinks the world of Jerrance Howard, who played for Butler for four years on the AAU circuit while in high school.
"He definitely gave them a shot in the arm," says Butler of Howard. "He came at a perfect time. He provides leadership to young kids, really relates to them. He adds a different type of adrenaline, adds some juice. Kids see him, love his bubbly personality and connect with him. He establishes relationships quickly with these kids and adds something different to their program."
Brian Davis is the coach of the high-profile Rising Stars AAU team that consists of Richmond and another Illinois target, Glenbrook South big man Jack Cooley. Howard knew Davis prior to even getting into coaching. Although they weren't "close friends" while at Illinois, the two both went to school there and knew one another in the 1990s.
"What you see is what you get," says Davis of Howard. "He's down-to-earth, passionate, a go-getter. The kids like him and feel like he knows what they as players are going through. He's young, easy to relate to and gets to know the player as a person.
And what about Cooley, the 6-8 junior who recently picked up offers from Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Illinois last week? Both Jack Cooley -- and his father, Jack, Sr. -- rave about Howard as well.
"Three words that describe Jerrance are genuine, sincere and conscientious," says Jack, Sr. in regard to his experience in dealing with Howard in the recruitment of his son. "What jumps out at you is his natural sincerity when he's talking to you. What he says he means."
And as far as the Cooley recruitment, the family will head to Notre Dame this weekend. Cooley has been on campus for a football game in South Bend and now will be there for a basketball weekend. Cooley, who has been to Wisconsin and Illinois to visit twice, fully expects this visit to be his last, with the plan being to make a decision shortly after the visit.
COOLEY RECRUITING NOTE: Rumors swirled that prized prospect Tyler Griffey out of Missouri committed to Illinois on Wednesday, which would greatly impact the Cooley/Illinois situation. As it stands, Illinois has one scholarship for the 2009 class with Griffey and Cooley the prime targets. The Hoops Report personally believes Notre Dame was in the lead going into this weekend's visit. A Griffey to Illinois commitment, which was reported by the News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign, could make the Cooley to Notre Dame possibility stronger.
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