Jake Palmer, Nick Lindsey, Heath Wilson and Josh Pritchard coach some of the more successful small-school high school football programs in our area.
Palmer is in his sixth season at Fisher, Lindsey is in his fourth season at Arcola, Wilson is in his third season at Villa Grove/Heritage and Pritchard is in his second season at Paxton-Buckley-Loda.
Until this past winter, none of the four had ever heard from a member of the Illinois football coaching staff. The hiring of Bret Bielema on Dec. 19 and the subsequent assistant coaches he’s brought on board since then have changed that reality.
New Illini offensive coordinator Tony Petersen reached out to Palmer, Lindsey and Wilson, part of Bielema’s pledge to make contact with every high school football coach in the state. New Illini receivers coach George McDonald did the same with Pritchard.
“It felt like they really wanted to make connections across the state,” Pritchard said. “He was willing to listen to our complaints and asked what can they do for us, not just make a blank statement of what they were going to do. He also asked about any athletes we might have that have been overlooked.”
Shawn Skinner, in his fifth season coaching St. Joseph-Ogden, and third-year Champaign Central coach Tim Turner also heard from Petersen. Both said they did have interactions with former Illini coach Lovie Smith and the school’s previous staff.
To varying degrees.
“I had a great relationship with the previous staff,” Turner said, “and the last time I heard from the Illinois football coaching staff was during the 2018 season when Coach Smith came to the school to visit with me during lunch.”
Former Champaign Central product Ben Schultz wound up walking on to join the Illini, with the defensive back about to enter his third season with the program. Other former area standouts, like Bryce Barnes (Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley), Caleb Griffin (Danville), Jaden Jones-Watkins (Fisher), Julian Pearl (Danville) and Dylan Thomas (Monticello), dot the 2021 Illini roster.
So it’s not like Smith completely neglected the area product. But it seemed like the outreach appeared more sincere with Bielema’s staff, according to Skinner. Skinner had attended a few spring Illinois spring practices with Smith in charge and met with former offensive coordinator Rod Smith in the spring of 2019.
“My understanding is that not every coach or program in the state received that type of attention and it was very much a, ‘If you ask we might let you,’ environment,” Skinner said. “Lovie visited SJ-O in the spring of 2019, and it was very courteous. But I can’t say that it was a very substantive meeting. It felt like a token appearance and not purposeful. I think Coach Petersen genuinely wanted to make contact and talk a bit about the SJ-O program to have a better understanding of who we are and what history we have when it comes to football in the state of Illinois.”
Lindsey relayed a similar experience during his conversation with Petersen.
“He seemed genuine about the state of Illinois and wanting to make it a priority,” Lindsey said. “He seemed very open to meeting and allowing coaches freedom to reach out to them. It’s great to establish relationships with your home school, not only for recruiting purposes, but also for establishing the fan base.”
All six coaches were unanimous in wanting to see Illinois football succeed. This fall, Bielema will try to direct the first winning season by the program since 2011.
So far, it seems, he has the backing of high school coaches in the area that previous staffs may not have had. A simple phone call can go a long way apparently.
“Having relationships with high school coaches keeps local talent local,” Palmer said. “There is a lot of good high school football being played in the state of Illinois. By building strong relationships with high school coaches, the hope is that talented players from area schools put Illinois football at the top of their recruiting list. We all have a vested interest in seeing Illinois football succeed.”