CHAMPAIGN — The coronavirus pandemic picked up, and the sports world shut down.
On March 13, 2020, one day after the men's NCAA Tournament was canceled because of COVID-19, the NCAA implemented a recruiting dead period. During this time, Division I colleges were not allowed to host recruits for official visits or visit them in-person at their homes or schools. Those restrictions made the recruiting experience for athletes in the Class of 2021 unlike any other, with several of them committing to programs before they had actually visited the campuses.
Over one year later, and with coronavirus vaccines available to anyone in the United States 12 or older, the NCAA finally lifted its dead period Tuesday at midnight. According to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd, the dead period had been extended eight times since its initial implementation, but now Illinois and other programs will be allowed to give prospective athletes the full recruiting experience.
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First-year Illini football coach Bret Bielema expressed his excitement for the resumption of face-to-face recruiting via Twitter on Monday, sharing a brief message along with a photo inside the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center that was opened in August 2019. The photo appears to have been taken in the lobby in front of a large screen that displays the outline of an Illinois football player in their Nike helmet and jersey and the words "Welcome FAMILLY" written at the bottom.
"Tomorrow we open our doors for the first (time) and this will be what they see first step in the #SmithCenter both our current roster and all recruits coming to visit #famILLy #justgettinstarted #ILL," Bielema tweeted.
Pat Embleton, Illinois football's executive director of personnel and recruiting, is ready to go as well. He shared the same photo as Bielema via Twitter and a quick message of his own to the Class of 2022.
"Huge month ahead of us!" Embleton tweeted. "Can't wait to show off this beautiful facility, and the people that represent it! #FamILLy22"
The Illini will also host three camps in June. The first two showcases are scheduled for June 16 and June 23, while the third "Big Man Camp" is slated for June 27. That padded showcase is only for offensive and defensive linemen.
Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood, who is still searching for a third full-time assistant, plans to hit the recruiting trail, too. Now that the NCAA's dead period has been lifted, this will be the Illini's first opportunity to really capitalize off of one of their most successful seasons in program history.
During the 2020-21 campaign, Illinois went 24-7, won their first Big Ten Tournament championship since 2005 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Loyola-Chicago in the round of 32.
"June obviously becomes an open time to start getting guys on campus. We do have guys we're bringing on campus unofficially," Underwood said in a Zoom press conference last week. " ... Our (current) guys don't report back to campus until (June 12 or 13) and we want guys on campus, but also want to put our best foot forward and part of that is having our guys on campus and around and (allowing recruits to see) what we're doing in workouts. So, some of those visits will happen a little later in June."
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid