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Bolingbrook quarter back Aaron Bailey runs in for a touchdown. | John Patsch~For Sun-Times Media
It’s been tough being an Illinois football fan lately.
After the Fighting Illini started 6-0 and surged into the Top 25 midway through the 2011 season, they have fallen into a prolonged funk. They’re 3-16 since, including 2-10 last fall, as attendance at Memorial Stadium has slipped and it seems like there’s been a revolving door installed in the coaches’ offices.
Ron Zook was fired after the 0-6 finish to the regular season in 2011, interim head coach Vic Koenning guided the Illini past UCLA to a bowl win at the end of that season before leaving and Tim Beckman was hired to pick up the pieces. The turnover has also featured four offensive coordinators since 2011, including an ill-fated experiment with co-OCs last season.
All this has happened while the state’s other two top-level programs are on the rise. Northwestern is coming off a 10-win season capped by a bowl victory and just announced a deal to play more games at Wrigley Field, which can only help recruiting. Northern Illinois reached new heights with a 12-2 record, BCS berth and a promising future under new coach Rod Carey.
For all that, though, there is hope in Champaign.
Beckman is doing all the obvious things — and some less often seen — as he tried to turn around the Illini.
First off, Beckman and his staff haven’t forgotten about his old recruiting base when he was the head coach at Toledo. “They were strong in Ohio,” Rivals.com Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt said. “They continue to use those connections.”
Indeed, Beckman’s 2013 recruiting class has five players from Ohio, including four-star multi-purpose star Caleb Day.
But the Illini won’t be back on solid footing until they become a big — if not the biggest — player in the state’s top market.
Again, Beckman seems to be following the right path.
“I like what they’re doing,” CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “They are starting to get used to Chicago. ... Ohio is the No. 1 state in the Midwest for talent, but Chicago is the No. 1 city.”
And if effort matters, the Illini seem to be in good shape.
“[Beckman’s] staff is the hardest working staff in the Big Ten, hands down,” Helmholdt said. “You can tell they like recruiting, they are passionate about recruiting.”
The big local payoff this year was landing Bolingbrook’s Aaron Bailey, a big, strong, mobile quarterback who won a state title in 2011. Bailey, a 6-2, 215-pounder, could be a game-changer for the Illini not just on the field but off it as well.
“It bodes well for the future,” Lemming said. “You can use a guy like Bailey and [Peoria Richwoods running back Kendrick] Foster to recruit the Illinois kids.”
Yet another reason for optimism for Illini fans is Beckman’s apparent determination to get better in a hurry. His current 25-man recruiting class includes five junior college players, something you don’t often see in the Big Ten.
“It’s a good way to go when you’re lacking talent and depth,” Lemming said.
The hope in Champaign is that won’t be the case after Beckman gets a chance to put his stamp on this program.