By Joe Henricksen
Illinois has landed the "Mali Masher." But this is more about Illinois assistant coach Jerrance Howard than the fact the Fighting Illini have secured a commitment from Ibrahima Djimde.
The superlatives have been thrown Jerrance Howard's way. The Illinois assistant coach, in a rather short period of time, has established himself as one of the elite recruiters in the country. And his value to the Illinois basketball program is so vital and obviously immeasurable, especially at a time when certain negativity has followed coach Bruce Weber's program of late.
With the Sunday morning commitment of Djimde, a West Virginia prep school player, Howard has now been the lead recruiter for all six incoming freshmen next year -- De La Salle's Mike Shaw, Orr's Mycheal Henry, Mt. Carmel's Tracy Abrams, St. Ignatius' Nnanna Egwu and Devin Langford out of Alabama -- and a senior transfer, former Bradley point guard Sam Maniscalco. Seven recruits? In one class?
That, folks, just doesn't happen. Do you realize the time commitment that goes into recruiting, landing and signing just one or two prospects in any single class while singling out others in younger classes? And so much for Illinois not being able to recruit the city of Chicago.
While Djimde may not bring the national ranking the others in the class will be able to put in the media guide, by all accounts he will be a key and pivotal piece. The description of Djimde, a 6-9, 240-pound true power forward, is what Illinois has lacked -- big, strong, physical post who plays hard and with a ton of energy. Who cares if his offense is lacking, so say those who have watched him. The native of Mali in Africa fills a monstrous void the Illinois program has been lacking.
How soon will his impact be felt? Who knows? He will be just a freshman. But because of what he is as a player, there are those around the Illinois program who really believe he could provide valuable minutes right away and make an impact sooner than later.
With the departure of Jereme Richmond, who would have been playing a ton of minutes next season at the 4-spot if he were still a part of the program, Illinois would have been scary thin up front in terms of bodies, experience and style of play needed at the power forward and center positions. Illinois went out and tried to land the ideal fit for what it needed, regardless of stature, ranking or who was recruiting him.
Howard will now re-charge the batteries and set his sights on the young talent budding in Illinois. He's licking his chops at the thought of recruiting the likes of Simeon's Jabari Parker, the Whitney Young trio of Jahlil Okafor, Paul White and Tommy Hamilton and making more trips to Massachusetts to try and land point guard prospect Johnnie Vassar in the Class of 2014.
A lot of credit goes to Weber, who did go out on a limb when Howard was hired in 2007. Weber took some hits from critics (Weber has critics?) with his choice of Howard, who "wasn't a Chicago guy" and "didn't have the experience." Howard has more than passed the test and validated Weber's gut feeling four years ago.
There is definitely a part of Howard who is looking forward to the day when people realize and appreciate he's more than just a superstar recruiter. While still young and in need of additional seasoning in the coaching profession, he constantly is looking for ways to improve himself as a coach. Howard wants to get better, seeks feedback -- both positive and negative -- from veteran coaches who he showers with questions.
It's no wonder why Howard has been such a prized commodity and wanted by some of the elite college coaches and programs in the country -- some that have been public and some that have been behind the scenes. Howard has gone from a young, energetic, wet behind the ears assistant coach to a recruiting force and presence in the business. And his energy and passion are contagious.
He meets and exceeds so many of the standards that makes a great recruiter: tireless worker, connected, respected and as personable and easy to relate to as anyone out there. As one recruit's father recently told the Hoops Report: "He just makes you feel like you've known him for so long and are long-lost pals as soon as you meet him."
As with any business, there are some out there in the coaching profession with a bit of jealousy towards Howard. There are assistant coaches, some who have been on the job many years longer than Howard, who do get a little tired of the hype thrown his way and the attention he has received from a few of the elite college programs in the country. But those coaches also find it nearly impossible to dislike Howard. That's where the magnitude of Howard's personality -- the down-to-earth, fun-loving, lack of arrogance -- shines through.
As the whopping seven recruits in the Class of 2011 indicate, along with keeping Jereme Richmond committed (yes, we know how that worked out), landing Crandall Head and establishing strong relationships with so many young players in the state, Howard is not one of those hot flavors of the month. The résumé is slowly (well, maybe not slowly) and surely being built. And as his craft continues to emerge, Howard will make himself more marketable as a head coaching candidate sooner than later.