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CHAMPAIGN – As phone calls go, the one that arrives at 3 a.m. on the nightstand of a head football or basketball coach is as bad as it gets.

No one calls in the middle of the night with good news. You’re not being rescued from a bad dream. You’re being taken into a bad dream.

Those rare and frightening calls are placed only when there’s urgent bad news. An arrest. An awful car wreck. A significant injury. Or on those occasions that will haunt a coach forever, when the news is even worse than that.

Lovie Smith’s phone rang in the dark of night this week and if there’s a worse phone call than the news he got about three of his Illini football players being arrested and charged with residential burglary and aggravated robbery, it was the three calls he had to place to those players’ families.

Imagine calling mom in Cincinnati and telling here that here son – true freshman offensive lineman Howard Watkins – may have put his scholarship and place as a student and member of the University of Illinois football team in jeopardy.

That has to be devastating news to a mother whose son was smart enough to graduate from Colerain High School in Cincinnati in three-and-a-half years in order to enroll early at Illinois.

Or the call Lovie Smith had to make to Darta Sr. and Vaunette Lee, parents of offensive lineman Darta Lee. He’s from Lovie Smith’s home state of Texas and you can bet the Lone Star state ties came up when the recruiting pitch was delivered.

Or the call the coach placed to John and Tiffany Holcombe, parents of Zarrian Holcombe, another Texan from Houston. In his university biography, Zarrian said he hopes to attend law school following his playing career.

He’s majoring in sociology.

Some of those parents sent their kids to Lovie because they felt safe knowing he’d be looking after them. But there’s only so much a coach can do. He can talk about the importance of following team rules, bring in speakers about making smart choices and be sure it’s always a high priority topic of conversation.

But at some point, blocks away from the dorms, a coach puts his head down for the night and those players have to be trusted to do as they’ve been taught.

Then someone gets a foolish idea and friends and teammates are willing to follow.

Trying to make sense of what those three players did at the Bromley Hall dormitory this week will make your head throb. Was it a burglary gone awry? Was it a stupid prank, as the players told the police.

Clearly that will be their defense, should this mess make it trial.

The other news this week was easier to understand but sad just the same.

D.J. Williams is leaving the Illini basketball program, intent on transferring to a program where he can make a larger contribution.

It’s sad because every recruit arrives with a similar dream. They imagine becoming a star, certainly a valued contributor, all hoping to win championships and get a chance to play professionally.

But Williams, a former Chicago Simeon star, never won a role in John Groce’s rotation. He mostly languished on the bench.

The thing coaches don’t tell recruits is that with 13 scholarship players, there will always be two or three who end up disappointed that their dream isn’t coming true. The sheer math of it suggests that most coaches will have a rotation of eight, nine or sometimes 10 players. Few coaches use more.

And those who aren’t used end up considering the transfer route to find more playing time.

Credit D.J. Williams for this much: Amid his disappointment at not finding a bigger role, he never channeled his energies into a “prank” as dumb as these young football players hatched this week.

Lovie Smith must go to bed nowadays and look at his phone with just one thought. Please don’t ring.


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