How Pat Ryan became Illinois football's go-to guy for in-state high school recruiting
CHAMPAIGN — It didn’t take long for Pat Ryan to return to football.
The former Metamora head coach retired in 2020 after three decades leading the school to five runner-up finishes and two state titles.
He soon found an unexpected home with Illinois football and new coach Bret Bielema.
As the program’s director of Illinois high school relations, Ryan is rekindling old coaching relationships and enjoying the everyday buzz of operations on a robust, Big Ten Conference football program.
It’s a significant contrast from his small-town Metamora roots, where he compiled a 268-75 record over 30 years as a head coach. And Ryan is gratefully soaking in the scene while carving out a valued role with Illinois, which has launched an extensive effort to improve in-state recruiting.
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“I knew I was missing being around football,” Ryan said. “I didn’t realize how much until I went out to the first spring practice, things were happening, and that’s when it kind of hit me.”
Ryan kept up with Metamora’s spring season, watching the games on YouTube, and he stayed involved with the Illinois High School State Coaches Association.
It didn’t take long for Bielema to make an appearance at a meeting Ryan attended. There, Bielema outlined the director of high school relations position, and Ryan went home and told his wife that he’d suddenly figured out how to scratch his football itch.
“The wheels just started turning,” Ryan said. “When I got out of there, I said, ‘Nancy, you’re not gonna believe what I just heard.’”
Ryan hadn’t met Bielema until then, but was impressed with the plan the new Illini coach laid out. On Friday, only a few months later, Ryan was echoing that message to reporters in Memorial Stadium’s north end zone recruiting lounge.
“Coach has a plan," Ryan said, "and it’s exciting to be a part of it."
Making in roads, in state
The Illini have 10 commitments so far in the Class of 2022, including six in-state players, highlighted by Oak Park Fenwick wide receiver Eian Pugh, who committed to the Illini during the week. The class currently ranks No. 36 in the country and No. 10 in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports.
Landing prospects like Pugh, who ranks No. 13 in the state, is just the start of what Illinois must do in order to build up the backbone of the roster and catch up to Big Ten rivals.
Ryan thinks Bielema’s efforts are being received well around the state. The easing of pandemic restrictions, allowing Bielema to get out and see people and programs in person, has also helped.
“There’s some momentum right now,” Ryan said. “He spoke in an athletic directors’ conference this week and had a chance to relay that message to people, get out in front of people.”
“(Bielema is) a people person. He’s an Illinois guy. He’s an Illinois product. His path was one, he walked on in school, so I think he appreciates the big picture of college football. I’m just really enjoying it.”
Ryan fits into the picture for Illinois as the go-to resource for any high school coach in the state — and he’s keeping an open line.
“The high school coaches in the state of Illinois, they’ve all got my number,” Ryan said. "So if there’s something that comes up, we’ve had some camps, camp questions, those kind of things, to be that first line.”
“The functioning of working those guys through (at camps), letting them see what this facility is all about. Then, I think, it’ll transition once we get into the fall with game day, making sure that we’re accessible for high school coaches because that’s going to be a big part of what’s wanted. We want those connections.”
One of the bigger adjustments for Ryan, who is used to making his evaluations in-person, is the heavy emphasis on film evaluations. It’s a logistical requirement when recruiting at the next level, but Ryan is enjoying the lessons that each new day brings.
“I’ve seen a lot of really good high school players on film, but there’s a difference between Power Five guys,” Ryan said. “I said, ‘Boy, I’d take that guy at Metamora and we’d get him the ball.’ There’s a difference, so I’m learning in that capacity.”
'Honesty is important'
Bielema said back in April that he expected to learn from Ryan, too, especially given his extensive relationships with coaches in central Illinois and around the state.
Ryan’s name commands respect. The IHSCA Hall of Famer's endorsement of Bielema and the Illini, who are working to repair rusty in-state pipelines, may be helping the staff’s early in-state returns.
Ryan also knows the importance of being open and transparent with high school coaches and prospects, another key to building trust. The good-faith effort to establish connections with every in-state program can go a long way toward establishing that trust, Ryan said.
“From a high school perspective, we didn’t have a lot of Division-I players when I was at Metamora," he said, "but it was always appreciated when the university came through."
Some coaches Ryan has spoken with have been surprised to hear from another Illini staffer, after Bielema earlier this year assigned all of his assistants one region in the state to contact every program.
“We had guys say, ‘We haven’t a D-I guy in 20 years,’” Ryan recalled. “Doesn’t matter. We still want those connections. We want them to feel like they’re part of this program.”
“The honesty is important,” he said. “When kids come to camp — we had 233 kids — not every kid is going to be a Division-I football player. But no matter who walks through this door that wants to play football or has some desire to be around football, you treat them the same. And that’s exactly what’s happened here.”
Gaining his footing
Despite the big jump from the high school level to the Big Ten, Ryan has landed on steady footing in Champaign, even if he was admittedly a bit intimidated at first.
“After doing something that same place for 33 years where you know everybody that walks in the building, including the students because I was the only health teacher, I went from that to knowing very few people in the building,” Ryan said.
The nerves only lasted a few days, though, before Ryan’s warm personality meshed with the upbeat, go-getter vibe around the Smith Football Performance Center, where the Illini run most day-to-day operations.
“Even though it's a big university," Ryan said. "it really does 'small up' as far as how you feel here."
Gavin Good is the University of Illinois correspondent for Gannett Illinois. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/itsallG_O_O_D.