Warts And All
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My very first post was a Signing Day summary in February, 2009. So we're coming up on 13 years here. And I can say this: there's been no bigger shift for me in those 13 years than my emotions on football Signing Day. From Christmas Day to Groundhog Day.
That's not it. It's not Groundhog Day. Because of the movie, calling it Groundhog Day would imply that I feel like it's the same thing over and over. It's not that. It's... what's a holiday that has been bludgeoned to death?
No, not Christmas. I'm one of those fools who could watch five consecutive Hallmark Channel Christmas movies and push away the cynical "oh look, they got together at the end" reaction with "yeah, but if I'm being honest here the Candy Cane Festival on the town square looked like a real good time" warm fuzzies. I still feel that Christmas magic.
This is more like... Valentines Day. Started out as something innocent and sweet -- for lovers -- and then morphed into today's "hey lunkhead meatball - we know you forgot to get your wife flowers, so go to Lunkhead Meatball Flowers dot com and order the Big Dumb Idiot Package for $99.99" ad reads on sports radio.
Well, I'm a lover. I love Signing Day. It's still innocent and sweet to me. High school kids seeing dreams come true. Full ride scholarships and a chance to chase the NFL. A quarterback from New Jersey and a defensive back from Florida and an offensive lineman from Indiana all joining together to try to make my dream come true: a healthy, thriving, competing-for-Big-Ten-West-titles Illini Football program. My hope used to be renewed every year on Signing Day.
That's why it's so hard to watch it get bludgeoned to death, a casualty of the Content Wars. I'm a soldier in that war now (unfortunately), so Signing Day mornings that used to feel so hopeful now fill me with dread. Just sitting down at this laptop makes me feel like I'm beating a plowshare into a sword. I want nothing to do with it.
This is the thing they warn you about, you know. When you say "I'm going to turn my passion into my job!", there's always someone who will tell you "well then say good-bye to your passion." I always thought that would mean I'd eventually no longer want to do this, and that's not the case at all (like, AT ALL). But now I'm realizing that it means you'll see the inner-workings of how your passion has been monetized - fandom for sale - and you'll grow to resent yourself for joining the side that's selling.
Avoidance of that feeling motivates so much of what I do, to be honest. When I leave the pressbox to sit in the stands at halftime, it's often because I need to reconnect. Task #1 for me is "never lose the 'f' at the front of 'fanalyst'," and I often need to go sit in the stands to make that happen. Maintaining that balance is much more important to me than uncovering some scoop.
So when it comes to Signing Day, well, I've gone to Twitter eight times today and found that I have nothing to say. I want to do what I've always done - interact with fans as the LOI's come in, discussing how this guy is a sleeper but we really failed at filling these two needs over here - and it seems impossible. Every player who has signed with every school has filled every need. Next season is the first time in history that 11 of the 14 Big Ten teams will go undefeated.
The rankings services have certainly responded to that momentum. "Everyone wants to believe that every player is great? Well then let's just make every player's score reflect his greatness." The data is no longer reliable.
Take the composite rankings on 247. This changes by the minute, so this will just be a snapshot at 1:49 pm, but as of right now the average Illini recruit score on the 24/7 Composite is 85.11. Here's the Big Ten West scores at the moment, with the Illini class 11th-best in the Big Ten in overall score:
(I guess I did tweet something today. A Michigan fan noted that the Big Ten East sat in places 1-7 on these rankings and the Big Ten West was 8-14. That was quite interesting so I retweeted it.)
When compared to previous seasons, 85.11 is a pretty great number for average player score. Go back to 2015 and the average player score for the Illini recruiting class was 83.45. Looking at that 2015 Big Ten list, 85.11 would have been sixth in the conference behind Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. For the 2022 class? It's 14th out of 14. Lowest average player score in the conference (mostly due to being the only Big Ten team without at least one 4-star in the class).
Here's a better way to make that point. In 2015, Pat Nelson was just inside the top-1000 player in the class, ranked #994. His individual composite score: .8458.
This season, the closest player to Pat Nelson's 2015 score is tight end Henry Boyer. His individual composite score: .8436. Does that put him 994th nationally? No, it puts him 1,290th. Grade inflation in the last seven seasons means there's 300 additional players at "mid three-star and above".
Why? Well, this means there can be 300 more "he's a mid-to-high three star" articles. If the goal is "pretty much every player who signed is great", then of course grade inflation will be out of control.
Which bothers me as a fan. This stuff MATTERS to me, man. I'm a true believer. I live and die with Illinois football, and these Twitter billboards proclaiming that there's no more death, only life, due to 22 super amazing awesome recruits, are offensive to me.
I'm OK with the risk. I want the risk. They might not be perfect, and they might not get us where I dream of us going. It's been messy, and it remains messy, and when we emerge from the mess with a football program it's going to feel amazing.
As I've always said on Signing Day, these guys are choosing orange and blue, and because of that, I'm in their corner for life, warts and all. My emotion is always "best of luck men - it's going to be really, really difficult, but if you can get us there, you'll never buy a drink in this town again".
So when someone airbrushes over the warts? When everyone airbrushes over the warts? It bothers me. It makes me not want to follow (or write about) Signing Day.
I'm OK with the warts. The three teams below us on that list above only have 15, 13, and 12 recruits in their classes (we have 22), so yes, we probably brought in the 14th-best recruiting class in the Big Ten. And just like always, I'm OK with that. I'm ready for these 22 guys to go shock the world. That's my dream, anyway. May my new year dreams comes true.
And this song of mine? In three-quarter time? Wishing you and yours...
The same thing too.