"I've never seen anything like it in 28 years." - Notre Dame/hyperbole fan Tom Lemming after signing day in 2007, concerning Illinois' class.
"Where there's smoke, there's probably fire." - John L. Smith on the likelihood of Illinois recruiting violations in 2007.
Go way back, reader, hurdling over countless Internet controversies, to the frigid February of 2007.
Remember how every major fanbase in the Midwest had a contingent swearing vociferously that Illinois and head coach Ron Zook were—gasp—cheating? Remember that controversy, with Charlie Weis calling out Arrelious Benn and Michigan supposedly drafting letters to the Big Ten offices?
Of course, most ignored that the anemic North Carolina Tar Heels went 3-9 that year and had an equally solid recruiting class. Forgotten was Ole Miss, where the year prior Ed Orgeron had scored a Top 20 class in between three-win seasons. And completely ignore that few people raised eyebrows in 2006, when Zook built an impressive class as well.
No, many in the late winter of 2007 ignored these simple facts of recruiting life and claimed up and down that Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini were dirty without any credible evidence, outside of a two-win team nagging a class ranked—gasp—barely in the consensus top 20.
Well, where is that particular class today?
Four-star WR Anthony Morris? Never enrolled, possibly playing in JUCO somewhere.
Four-star DT D'Angelo McCray? Lining up for Eastern Illinois now; he transferred out on apparently good terms.
Four-star OL Mark Jackson and three-star S Brian Gamble? Off the team at the end of camp this year due to academic issues.
Mercurial, talented back Deries Hodge? JUCO in Kansas.
QB Phil Haig? Playing baseball full-time. Three-star talents Steve Matas and Enrique Robertson? The former never came, and the latter went to prison. Darius Purcell, too, departed earlier this year.
While attrition is a part of any major college program, over the last 18 months the Illinois roster has lost at least half of what garnered the class of '07 its stellar reviews.
So what's left? The two Notre Dame-coveted gems, Martez Wilson and Arrelious Benn, both hold starting spots for the Illini. The other four-star talents, Josh Brent and Craig Wilson, have scarcely played in 2008. Wilson is buried on the depth chart, and Brent has missed the last two games for personal reasons.
After those four, there are seven players who fill spots in the Illini two-deep. Out of those remaining players, only offensive lineman Jack Cornell, cornerback Marcus Thomas, and defensive lineman Daryle Ballew had respectable offer sheets.
In sum, what's left of the class that Zook supposedly cheated to build? Six players who had reasonably contested recruitments. Six.
If Ron Zook actually has been cheating the last few years, he really must suck at it. Who recruits dirty only to drive away half the talent within 18 months? Isn't that a surefire recipe for NCAA sanctions, with a side of ignominy and permanent unemployability for dessert?
For all those recruiting aficionados who claimed up and down that Zook—who uses words like "doggone" and in his free time listens exclusively to Christian radio—was a walking piece of recruiting filth, take a look at what has happened since February of 2007. Nine of the 21 Zook signees are completely gone, with only two of the "key" recruits making any current contributions.
Ask yourselves if Zook had actually been cheating what would have happened, because it would have been markedly different. Ask yourselves how much sense it makes in college football to pay a mere three or four players a year. Ask yourselves how brain-dead someone would have to be to recruit dirty with Cordale Scott, coached by Ted Ginn, Sr., in high school.
No, what Zook did was not magic, nor was it cheating. He did what coaches of 2-10 teams have to do. He used personal connections to his favor and offered scholarships to teammates who were good enough for Illinois but not good enough for Ohio State or Florida.
He widened the scope of who they could offer in order to take risks on kids like Gamble and Jeff Cumberland, both outstanding athletes who missed getting Ohio State offers due to academics. Sometimes those situations work—often they do not.
In the end, the only smoke any rational person can see emanates from the smoldering embers of John L. Smith's career.
If anyone still believes, in the face of sound reasoning and without credible evidence to the contrary, that Ron Zook cheated to land his "stellar" recruiting classes after his early mediocre seasons, I've got some Notre Dame BCS title game tickets to sell you.
As to the rest of those anonymous nethawks who called—and sometimes still call—Ron Zook a cheater, maybe they should all get on their blogs and message boards and complete the stories the started in February 2007 about that fishy recruiting class at Illinois, refute those old allegations with a reasonable write-up of what's happened sense.
"Naw," they say. "That Calipari just got another stud to play ball at Memphis... Got to write about him. He's dirrrty..."
Quotations at the onset come from Thamel, Pete and Thayer Evans. "Illinois Has Rivals Fuming About Its Recruiting Coup." New York Times. 7 February 2007.
Rankings within the article come from rivals.com. Scholarship offer lists come from scout.com.