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IOWA CITY — New Illinois head coach Bret Bielema smiled on Thursday as he addressed what might be not the last time he’d answer this question. How do you recruit in-state talent while sporting a Tigerhawk tattoo on your left leg?
The tattoo was not one of his best decisions, he said, which he made at age 19. He never expected to go into coaching, and was actually in college as a pre-law major.
“I was gonna either return to the farm and work for my dad,” Bielema said. “I actually went into college pre-law. How funny is that? I really felt that I was affected to a great deal by the coaches I played for … Dan McCarney, Kirk Ferentz, because they always talked about maximizing our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.”
McCarney was a defensive line coach for Iowa from 1979-89, Ferentz was at Iowa as an offensive line coach from 1981-89 when Bielema played as a defensive lineman at Iowa. The two reunited when Ferentz returned as head coach in 1999, while Bielema was the linebackers coach from 1996-2001.
“I think it's important to realize that that is a big part of where I am today,” Bielema said. “I always tell our players, we all come from different parts of the country, we all come from different homes, different backgrounds, different religions, different communities, the first is to know that you're here because of that, that made you who you are today.”
After nine years coaching in the SEC and NFL, Bielema’s return to the Big Ten was the talk of the first day of Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis last week. One of Bielema’s missions is to take back the state of Illinois in recruiting, which is also a hot bed for Iowa recruits.
“I think high school coaches, if they feel that they have a voice, or a direct line of communication to a program, especially in their home state, goes a long way,” Bielema said. "We reached out to every high school coach to give them a direct link and I divided up the state into 10 different quadrants to make sure that they knew who their voice was to get to our program.“
Already, eight of 12 verbal commitments in Bielema’s 2022 class are from the state of Illinois. Two of those — 247Sports three-stars wide receiver Eian Pugh and athlete Aidan Laughery — also received offers from Iowa.
Ferentz didn’t address recruiting against Bielema when asked, but said that recruiting has always been competitive in the Big Ten, especially since Iowa is a small population state. It’s a challenge to go into another state.
“It's never been easy,” Ferentz said. “Kendrick Green just signed with the Steelers and there's an example right there and we tried like heck to get Kendrick Green. He’s an unprecedented player.”
Green, from Peoria, Ill., was an offensive guard for Illinois picked in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
But Bielema didn’t waste time looking in-state even for the incoming 2021 class.
According to 247Sports, Kevin Kane, outside linebackers coach and associate head coach from Bielema’s staff, signed a last-minute local athlete, Kennena Odeluga, from Chicago to the 2021 class on March 13.
But historically, Iowa has beat Illinois to the punch on the state’s highest-touted recruits, which is what makes the next few years interesting.
In the last five recruiting cycles (2017-21), Iowa has signed 20 Illinois prospects. Nine also had Illinois offers: 18 were three-stars, one a four-star, one a five-star. During this time, Illinois signed 24 Illinois prospects, including none in the 2020 class. Only three also had Iowa offers; 22 were three-stars while two weren’t ranked.
Fourteen of the athletes Iowa signed through those recruiting cycles were ranked within the top 20 in the state of Illinois, according to 247 Composite rankings. Illinois signed seven during the same time period.
Iowa has signed the No. 1-ranked recruit from Illinois in two of the last five years: A.J. Epenesa in 2017, and more recently, David Davidkov in 2021.
Illinois has not signed a top-five in-state recruit since No. 2 offensive tackle Gabe Megginson in 2015. It has not signed the No. 1-ranked Illinois recruit since defensive end Martez Wilson in 2007.
In addition, both Iowa and Illinois athletes make up nearly equal proportions of Iowa’s current depth chart released on July 22. Eleven of Iowa’s players are from the state of Illinois, while 12 are from Iowa.
“I remember when I left the University of Iowa, went to Kansas State and was involved in recruiting battles, that's one thing is that they get very personal,” Bielema said. “For us to be successful at Illinois, we have to recruit in the state, but also, the states that border us, so they come in our state, so we can go into theirs, as well.”
The Gazette’s Nathan Ford contributed to this report.