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Illinois coaches, players and fans are doing their best to transform Champaign into “Littyville” to help attract top recruits.
CHAMPAIGN — Thad Ward took his kids out to eat on Green Street in Champaign two springs ago after he began working as running backs coach on Lovie Smith’s Illinois staff.
The lively section of town bustling with students on a warm day made him ponder why anyone wouldn’t want to attend school or play sports at Illinois.
“‘This is what you want. This is a true college environment,’ ” he said he told his kids. “But in my mind, I was thinking, this place can be explosive if we get the right pieces here.”
In other words — in the lingo of college students — “It’s a place where all things are lit.”
That’s the day, Ward said, he became mayor of “Littyville.”
He began tweeting about Champaign and the university, referring to it as such. Recruits and fans have caught on to using the hashtag, which has become especially popular this spring.
Coaches record themselves in the hallways outside their offices goofing around and talking about Littyville. Ward said his Twitter notifications are filled with mentions of it.
Memes have been created with photoshopped road signs and highway directions to Littyville.
Illinois teamed up with GameDay Spirit sporting goods store to sell Littyville shirts and hats — with the letters “ill” highlighted in orange or blue. They sold dozens at the spring scrimmage April 7.
“The kids have bought into it, the fans bought into it, the community bought into,” Ward said. “It surpassed what I thought it would be.” For Illinois, perception matters. Smith’s staff is working to change the program’s reputation off the field as much as its reality on the field as a means to bring in recruits and win back fans.
The Illini finished 2-10 with an 0-9 Big Ten record last season, Smith’s second in Champaign. They haven’t had a winning season since 2011 and have been to only one bowl game in that span. Memorial Stadium’s average attendance of 39,429 last season was 13th in the conference, ahead of only Northwestern.
Ward and other coaches are optimistic things are changing for the better.
Smith brought in new coaches this offseason, including offensive coordinator Rod Smith from Arizona. The 2019 recruiting class — which Ward has dubbed #IllGang19 on Twitter — is ranked No. 31 nationally despite only three commitments so far, thanks to a pair of top-60 national recruits in quarterback Isaiah Williams from St. Louis and wide receiver/cornerback Marquez Beason from Dallas.
Linebacker recruit Shammond Cooper, who is also weighing offers from Clemson and Oklahoma, tweeted a photo of himself in February wearing an Illinois uniform with the caption, “That Orange & Blue looking real nice #Littyville.” That buzz can only help Illinois. “We need to take another step on the football field,” Ward said. “This year. It’s imperative. We understand the urgency.
“We have the best fans in the world. We need our fans to come back to the stadium. Come make this place Littyville for all home games. We need to take a step, but we need to take a step together.”