Illinois struggles to recruit in-state kids. Could Jeff Monken's triple option fix that?

  • Could the triple option offense work at Illinois? Jeff Monken coaches it at Army and is on the list of potential candidates to replace Lovie Smith as the Illini's new head coach.

    Could the triple option offense work at Illinois? Jeff Monken coaches it at Army and is on the list of potential candidates to replace Lovie Smith as the Illini's new head coach. ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Former St. Charles East and West Chicago football coach Ted Monken has some candid thoughts on the search for Lovie Smith's replacement at Illinois.

    Former St. Charles East and West Chicago football coach Ted Monken has some candid thoughts on the search for Lovie Smith's replacement at Illinois. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 12/17/2020 3:12 PM

On the first day of the football signing period Wednesday, the Daily Herald has a chart of suburban players headed to schools like Arizona, Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota.

One school noticeably absent?


That would be the state's flagship university, Illinois.

Even before Lovie Smith was fired as the Illini coach Sunday, Illinois had commitments from 14 players, only 3 from Illinois.

And that's been the trend, not an outlier.

Why do the Illini have such a hard time recruiting Illinois?

Ted Monken, a former coach at St. Charles East and West Chicago whose family is as synonymous with high school football in Illinois as any, puts the blame both with Smith and larger issues.

"Lovie didn't make any effort," Monken said. "None of the high school coaches I talked to had any contact with Lovie let alone the assistants. They really don't know the coaches. And Lovie is a good coach, he went to the Super Bowl and the Bears have fallen off since he left. I'm not saying he's a bad football coach. I don't think he understands the college game. It's all about recruiting.

"When Lovie Smith got the job, how hard would it have been for him to bite the bullet, spend half of April and May and hit as many schools as he could and try to impress on every coach who at the time would love to meet Lovie Smith, he was the big name, he's walking into the school, he's coming to say hello to my players? Just spend a month and a half of your time to lay the groundwork. And after that you don't have to go to every school, send your assistants out, and you go see the good players like every coach does. He made zero effort."

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Because of that and other reasons, Smith is out at Illinois after going 17-39 in five seasons.

Monken's brother Todd, the offensive coordinator at Georgia, and his cousin Jeff, the head coach at Army, are two names that show up often as potential Lovie replacements.

The Monken family knows high school football in the state. Ted and Todd's father Bob coached at Lake Park and started the Illinois Football Coaches Association All-State program 26 years ago that Ted does a lot of the work for today. Jeff's father Mike coached at Joliet East, and Bob and Mike Monken had three brothers who also coached high school football.

When you add in the next generation that Ted is part of, there's 12 Monkens who have coached at least one year of high school football in Illinois.

If anyone would have contacts around the state who could help with recruiting, you would think it would be a Monken.

Ted Monken said Todd, who also has NFL experience as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and Cleveland, is happy where he is. Todd's name has surfaced with past Illini searches, but Ted said Todd's agent never got a call from Illinois.


So don't expect this year's opening to be a fit.

"It's hard to leave Georgia and all the success they are having," Ted Monken said. "It's not a financial decision because he's doing well at Georgia. He would probably make more money at Illinois but it's not like he's going to the soup kitchen. You want to move from Athens, Georgia to Champaign? He would rather stay there or bounce back to the NFL than try to restart at Illinois and maybe be fired in four or five years."

Jeff is the more likely candidate. He's 48-38 in 7 seasons at Army where he runs the triple option, which he learned under Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech.

Ted thinks the triple option, and Jeff's recruiting, would work in Champaign.

"He definitely would (improve recruiting)," Ted said. "The kids in Illinois would fit the triple option. There would be enough big guys, enough road graders, he could scholarship the hell out of these linemen in Illinois. I'm not sure you can recruit Illinois to be an air raid team. He would do a heck of a job because he gets it, he knows the coaches.

"I'm not saying these things just because I want Jeff to get the job. Any of those guys who run the triple, it makes a ton of sense to go that direction. Look what Georgia Tech did. They went from being a nonfactor to being competitive and scared the heck out of everybody every week."

Whoever the next football coach is at Illinois, and speculation continues to range from the Monkens to dream candidates like Cincinnati's Luke Fickell to more realistic targets like Buffalo's Lance Leipold, the new coach is going to have a heck of a time improving instate recruiting.

Other Midwestern states don't have the same problem keeping top players home.

"Wisconsin rarely scholarships a kid instate because every kid would grow up dying to be a Badger, and kids were tickled to death to be a preferred walk-on," Monken said. "That's a fortunate situation that Illinois just doesn't have. Kids in Illinois don't grow up wanting to be Illini. They are more likely to be Ohio State or Notre Dame fans.

"Illinois has been the definition of insanity," Monken continued. "Continue to do the same thing over and expect a different result. Right now they can't beat anybody on a recruit. Who is Illinois going to beat on a recruit? If you are a player and have a choice to go to Iowa or Illinois, you will probably go to Iowa. You have a chance to win some games and be competitive."

Illini athletic director Josh Whitman said instate recruiting will be a priority in selecting the next coach.

Monken hopes so, and thinks a change in the offensive identity can help.

"So who does Illinois beat like this? I'm going to try to beat you at what you are doing with lesser players," Monken said. "You have to be the reincarnation of Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi and whoever else all rolled into one. I think it would make a ton of sense for Illinois to go with the triple option. When you have good players it's a bear to stop and prepare for especially when you see it one time a year. I think Illinois would be brilliant to bring him in (Jeff Monken) or someone like him but I'm afraid they are going to go with another retread, a good coach that will go to Illinois to die."

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