Smile Politely

The inside dirt on Illinois recruiting


A bookish 14-year-old named Alex Foster has no idea where he’ll be in four years. That’s not unusual for 14-year-olds. But Alex is unusual for his age. He’s not goofy and uncoordinated, not awkwardly adapting to his adult form. Alex’s body is over six and a half feet long.

Whereas most 14-year-olds wonder whether they’ll fit in someday, Alex is courted by suitors of all ages, hoping he’ll come fit in with them. A few thousand adults, and a few million dollars, are concerned with the question of Alex’s college choice.

Sounds like one lively character, eh?

“You wouldn’t even know he’s in the house,” says Tony Foster, Alex’s dad. “That’s how quiet he is.”

It’s not a common sentiment among the parents of teens. But again, Alex is not common.

His favorite subject is English. Right now his class is reading The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a story about a man who hunts other men for sport. (If you don’t like reading as much as Alex, here’s the film version.) Alex is good at math and science too, but those subjects don’t excite him as much as a good book.

Ardent students and quiet teenagers may be fairly regarded as a blessing. But between you and me, the real reason Alex garners so much attention from colleges is his knack for putting a synthetic leather ball through a metal ring. If being a college professor doesn’t work out for him, Alex may have a career as a professional basketball player.

His skill, combined with his unusual height, lack of goofy awkwardness and devotion to scholarship garnered Alex and his parents extremely good seats to last weekend’s football game against Illinois State . For one thing, the seats were right next to famous people like Bruce Weber, Wayne McClain, Jay Price and two Jerrance Howards.

I spent some time with the Fosters, and captured an exceptionally crappy recording of my talk with Hope and Alex.

When he’s not reading a book, Alex likes to bowl. He described his favorite spot on the Illinois campus as the Brunswick lanes in the Illini Union. This revelation guarantees that he’ll be shown to every available bowling alley in West Lafayette, East Lansing, South Bend, maybe even North Carolina.

Unversed in gerontology, Alex shows no insouciance to carpal-tunnel syndrome. He’s just never heard of it. But not to worry, the southpaw bowls with his right hand.

Class of 2013 propect Alex Foster ponders. His mother Hope wore a neutral chartreuse outfit. Behind coach Wayne McClain,’s Brad Sturdy greets teen phenoms you haven’t heard of yet.

Illini Assistant Coach Jerrance Howard keeps up with young recruits. He has the inside track on Class of 2026 prospect Jerrance Howard Jr.

Tracy Abrams and Jereme Richmond are two of the elder statesmen among unsigned Illinois recruits.

If Alex Foster chooses Illinois, he won’t have to worry about competing with Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis or Richard Semrau for playing time. Those guys will be applying for medicare by the time Alex enrolls in college. He’d conceivably compete with Tyler Griffey, if Tyler chooses to redshirt. Meyers Leonard will be here. Jereme Richmond’s one-and-done plan may… evolve.

With the influx of talent, Alex can assume he’d be competing with top notch players — whoever they are — for floor time.


While attending last weekend’s gridiron squabble, I captured the only known instance of Arrelious Benn touching a football that day. In warm-ups, Benn played Hot Potato in the north end zone with a member of the staff. For the rest of the afternoon, the Illini offense played Keep Away from its most highly touted prospect since Jeff George.

When Benn chose Illinois over any other program, Mike Locksley didn’t promise “you’ll run up and down FieldTurf® for three hours, blocking Division II cornerbacks.”

Getting enough touches for star players is easy, but only when you have one or two star players. When recruiting success attains national stature, the touches must be spread among the myriad spotlight-conscious. Once gruntled players turn disgruntled. Players’ parents badger (even wolverine) the coaching staff. “Why isn’t Shaun getting more touches?!?” they might demand.

National champions tend to feature inglorious role players, and vainglorious stars. A team of prima donnas might weather a season without major injuries. But more often than not, there will be unheralded guys stepping in at crucial moments. This is just one of many truths that make college sports enormously more worthwhile, fulfilling and thrilling than pro sports (blech).

Right now, believe it or don’t believe it, Illini athletics achieves its apogee. The orbit may attain new heights in the future, but nothing sustainable reached this level since ever. Is it an epoch, or an era? All other gains of Illini athletic success proved ill-gotten — whether loose cash, sketchy scholarship, or simply a prominent coach with infidelitous aspirations — something rotted in Wittenberg. This time, it’s different?

So how long’s the ride?


When I was a kid, there was little to no reporting about recruiting. Loren Tate’s column in the News-Gazette revealed the identities of Illini athletic prospects, but usually on the day they signed National Letters of Intent. Blockbuster stories, like Illinois’ signing of Marcus Liberty (the nation’s top basketball prospect, or so we were told) and the recruitment of Shaquille O’Neal forced the Illini press corps to heed the happenings from far-flung gymnasia. For men who prefer to wake up late, get to the office around 10, and make the links by teatime — that’s a hard pill to swallow.

I’ve never spent much ink … or HTML script … on recruiting. It’s the dark side of college sports journalism, right? Street agents, handlers and John Calipari. A Gothic horror story.

Well, maybe. But the reason I don’t waste much time with it is that it’s hard work. Brad Sturdy is one of the new species of sports journalist. He covers recruiting full-time for

“It’s pretty much a non stop job. You have to be available almost 24/7, which can be very difficult. For me, it’s a side job, so that makes it even tougher. I usually make about an hour of phone calls a day and write for a while every day, sometimes more, sometimes less. I have traveled all over the US covering this stuff over the past few years including Las Vegas, Kansas City, Orlando, Chicago, Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, etc. just to watch AAU events or High School games. Once you start getting into the expenses of that travel, it isn’t a very lucrative side job. The good news is that I have a lot of Hilton Honors points now.”

To do the job well, Brad has to build relationships with a lot of people. He knows they’re not always truthful with him. They might not know it themselves.

“I get frustrated when kids aren’t allowed to make their own decision, and that there are too many 3rd parties that don’t have the best interest of the kid and get involved with them. It can also be tough cutting through all of the BS that you get from people. You appreciate the candor you get from some of the AAU and High School coaches, however there are some others that want it to be about them.”

Many will end up choosing a school other than Illinois. I asked Brad whether that frustrates him.

“As far as kids not picking Illinois, it can be tough, but as long as they are up front I really don’t have a problem with what they decide. One of the top players in the 2008 class picked a different school, but always gave me the correct information throughout the process. It’s hard not to like that.”

More power to him. To me, it’s much more interesting (and fun) talking with people already involved in the only basketball program I cover. Ideally, I can add some depth to the two dimensional picture you get of players, coaches, philosophies. I’m still old school about recruiting. I enjoyed chatting with the Foster parents, but it feels weird asking about life-altering decisions from a kid who isn’t old enough to work. I know what I was thinking about when I was 14.

It was on Cinemax, late on Fridays.


Mysterious McDade is a serious journalist. In covering football for Smile Politely, he (or she?!?!) has no time for the folly of extra-curricular socializing, tailgatingbating, Bota concealment revealment and drunk-spotting. (Did anyone run into that one guy in the tie-dye?) Luckily for me, his (or her?!?!?) determined observation of all on-field occurrences freed me to schmooze. Here’s what I discovered.

Al Moody designed this shoe himself. And you can too, at

Denean Pillar went to Atlantis to find her ensemble. Geographers and mythologists will be stunned to learn that Atlantis is actually in The Bahamas.

Linda King wore a smashing orange top which was damned close to green. You could tell it was orange though, because her husband Eric wore all blue. Anyway, she found it at Chico’s. The hat is available exclusively to Alpha Kappa Alpha Alumnae. (Sorry, but you know those Greeks and their exclusivity.)



More Articles