Chicago Tribune - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Shan­non Ryan

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.”

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