On Monday, the Illini ended their search for a running backs coach. And it’s a name that Illini fans will forever associate with a movement.
As first reported by ESPN’s Pete Thamel, Kansas State wide receivers coach Thad Ward will be returning to Champaign for the 2023 season.
Sources: Kansas State wide receivers coach Thad Ward is finalizing a deal to become the running backs coach at Illinois. Ward is the former RB coach at Illinois from 2016-18. He’s been at Temple, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) January 30, 2023
The Mayor of Littyville is back at City Hall. But how will this administration be different?
So what is/was Littyville?
Photo by Ivan Apfel/Getty Images
Littyville was supposed to be a state of mind. It was a mood. It was a vibe. It was the feeling recruits, commits, and roster members alike would be subsumed by when they set foot on campus at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus.
It should have been a pervasive sense of positivity that filled the community with optimism and created critical mass for Illinois football.
It was based on a song by Meek Mill.
It was a part of the movement that convinced top-125 prospects Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams to pledge to the Illini over offers from more prestigious programs.
And Ward was the pied piper of that movement.
Unfortunately, the energy wasn’t matched by the previous coaching regime. The recruiting gains made by Ward and Cory Patterson’s engaging enthusiasm was blunted by a laissez-faire attitude from the top of the program. That’s not the case anymore.
Littyville, in reality, is similar to FamILLy. It’s a slogan that hits players in the heart and creates a sense of togetherness that helps build classes.
Okay, it is/was a recruiting motto. So what?
Allow me to explain why mottos and slogans matter so much.
Illinois’ football program doesn’t have a sexy sell.
- Illinois doesn’t have a long track record of success like Ohio State.
- Bret Bielema doesn’t have the same living room swagger as Mel Tucker.
- Illinois doesn’t have the air raid offense that Wisconsin and Purdue now have.
- Illinois can’t currently boast two of the most fun players of the NFL as alumni like Penn State.
- The Illini aren’t coached by an ex-NFL quarterback and head coach like Michigan.
In other words, Illinois can’t talk kids onto campus with the same ferocity that many of its conference rivals can. Illinois plays a ball control offense. The Illini rely on a stingy, aggressive defense and controlling the clock with a powerful running game.
That isn’t the most electrifying foundation. So slogans like Littyville and FamILLy matter insofar as they provide a shared expression. They build community where said community needs to be developed. Without an extensive history of winning, Illinois has to sell high-end prospects on a vision.
Thad Ward is a proven shepherd of that vision.
After the Charlie Bullen hire, the Illini need a recruiter. Can Thad Ward recruit?
This takes us right back to the Littyville topic again. Thad was either a primary or secondary recruiter for Isaiah Williams, Shammond Cooper, DJ Barker, and Nick Fedanzo. Williams and Cooper were two of the biggest signees of the Lovie Smith regime. Barker set records at Illinois and Fedanzo is actually still on the roster with a chance to crack the rotation.
Ward’s connections to Chicago, St. Louis, and Miami will come in handy for a team that lost one of its best recruiters in Littyville co-founder Cory Patterson. It’s fitting that Ward returns to the Illini during the Bielema era after Patterson succeeded with a loaded running backs room for the first two seasons.
So is Littyville really back?
Only time will tell what happens with Ward’s re-emergence in Champaign. He’s a proven offensive coach with a sophisticated knowledge of this program, its needs, its challenges, and its potential. But make no mistake about it, he’s back under utterly different circumstances.
The program has demonstrated two consecutive years of competency. Bret Bielema has established a baseline of expected accomplishments. This isn’t a per coach hiring a per staff. This is a college program being run by a college CEO. So Ward’s recruiting prowess could resonate more strongly with an emerging winning program.
So, Ward inherits a pretty good room. Reggie Love and Josh McCray look to be the current starters. But I am particularly high on redshirt-freshman Jordan Anderson. Anderson has potential to be a special threat in the passing game, and at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’s a matchup nightmare. And Ward will have all of these high-end toys at his disposal. True freshman Kaden Feagin and redshirt freshman Aidan Laughery add a young thunder and lightning home run threat duo.
I know many Illini fans wanted Dre Brown in this chair. But Thad Ward isn’t some consolation prize. He’s one of the most important Illini sideline figures of the past decade, and his return could pay rapid, impactful dividends on the field and on the trail.