I was talking to Illinois and Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus the other day about some football-related subjects, including the demise of the Bears and his reaction to a recent survey that reported 6 percent of all NFL players over 50 suffer from a memory-related disease such as dementia or Alzheimer's.
As you can imagine, Dick is very opinionated on both subjects. He is especially "ticked" that the NFL hasn't taken care of the old-timers of the 1950s and 1960s who helped to build the foundation of the league, the ones who paved the way for today's millionaires.
But Dick had something else on his mind. "What's wrong with Illinois? Why can't they recruit the bet players from the state and around the country?" he asked.
"I was at a high school in the Cincinnati area the other day and (Texas coach) Mack Brown came in to see a kid. I asked him: 'Why does Illinois have so much trouble getting kids? What would you do if you were the head coach at Illinois?' He said he really didn't have any answers for Illinois, that he wasn't too familiar with their situation."
So Dick and I got into a length discussion on the subject. He remembered me from his days at Illinois, when I covered his Rose Bowl team with sports editor Bert Bertine for the old Champaign-Urbana Courier. Dick celebrated his 67th birthday on Dec. 9. He is two years younger than me. He is a chapter in my forthcoming book on high school football in Illinois.
First of all, Mack Brown is in an enviable position. He recruits in Texas, a football factory that produces dozens of blue-chip prospects every year, like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California.
When Butkus was recruited by Pete Elliott and Bill Taylor to go to Illinois in 1960, the era of national recruiting hadn't begun. Illinois' Rose Bowl team of 1964 boasted mostly homegrown players. Imagine how many schools would have recruited Butkus if he was playing today? His decision came down to Illinois or Notre Dame. And he would have gone to Notre Dame if they had allowed him to be a married student as a freshman.
Now most of the elite programs and all of the major conferences recruit in Illinois. Schools such as Florida, Miami, USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Ole Miss and UCLA, schools that never recruited in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, now spend a lot of time here. Many high school players are persuaded to leave the state. The current chaos in Champaign only opens the door even wider.
The SEC has supplanted the Big 10 as the premier power conference in the nation. Not only does the SEC have high-profile head coaches like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Les Miles but, more importantly, it has highly paid assistant coaches who are aggressive and personable recruiters.
One statistic told Butkus all he needs to know about why Illinois and the Big 10 have fallen behind: Monte Kiffin, the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, is paid $1 million a year. And Ed Orgeron, the former Ole Miss head coach who now is the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennessee, is paid $600,000. Illinois' highest paid assistant receives $220,000 while the others receive no more than $160,000.