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Illinois coaches follow up with interested Penn State players

Illinois coach Tim Beckman (right) jokes around during his team’s spring game April. | Rick Danzl~AP

Illinois coach Tim Beckman (right) jokes around during his team’s spring game in April. | Rick Danzl~AP

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Updated: August 28, 2012 6:24AM

It sounded so hand-in-the-cookie-jar tacky. Eight Illinois coaches flying to State College, Pa., to poach players from a devastated Penn State program. Like car salesmen cruising the highway, looking for stranded travelers standing next to broken-down cars.

That’s not really the way it went down, though.

‘‘We were contacted by individuals on the [Penn State] football team,’’ Illini coach Tim Beckman, caught in the eye of the latest Penn State storm, said Thursday at Big Ten media day. ‘‘We went there to reach out to the guys that contacted us. We told them where we were and if they’d like to come, we’d be willing to speak to them off campus.’’

No more than five Penn State players were involved, a source told the Sun-Times. All of the players had contacted Illinois coaches with whom they had previous relationships, coaches who presumably had said, ‘‘if it doesn’t work out ... ’’ after coming up short in recruiting battles.

The Illini coaches didn’t go on campus. They met at a Starbucks and a Waffle House to minimize the awkwardness of an undeniably awkward situation.

Other schools were there doing the same thing, perhaps at Dunkin Donuts and Denny’s. But at Illinois, it’s always complicated: Apparently not getting the memo about being discreet, the traveling party wore orange and blue. Clumsily.

‘‘I don’t think we were the only coaches that were there [Wednesday],’’ Illini athletic director Mike Thomas said. ‘‘[But] we might have been the only ones that weren’t smart enough to not wear our school logos or have those on our work bags.’’

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema got a lot of brownie points for saying, ‘‘I made the decision we would not reach out to any Penn State players. One of the things I’ve loved and appreciated about being in this conference is there is a genuine respect for everybody in our league, that you are a Big Ten brother.’’

Chances are, no Nittany Lions called the 608 area coade. But would Bielema be so filled with brotherly love if Montee Ball had decided to pursue his dream of French cooking school and Silas Redd decided he would look good in Badger Red?

Despite what some confused media seemed to think at the Hyatt McCormick Place, this is not about reaching out to Penn State players. It’s about following up if a Nittany Lion reached out to another school.

The Big Ten could have avoided this messiness by decreeing that Penn State players couldn’t transfer within the league or by putting up roadblocks such as the traditional one-year waiting period and one-year loss of eligibility.

It didn’t, though. Perhaps because the league decided, if a player is going to transfer, he should stay in the Big Ten, rather than bolster the Pac-12, SEC or Big 12. This is a league that’s nobody’s sweetheart.

‘‘We’re just following rules,’’ said Beckman, noting that Penn State was informed, right down to cream and sugar and pats of butter. ‘‘It wasn’t a sneak attack. It was all out front.’’

Purdue coach Danny Hope didn’t deny interest, either: ‘‘As long as we’re compliant, we’re ­going to do everything we can to enhance our football team.’’

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, ‘‘I’d be lying if I [said] we didn’t look at the roster to some degree,’’ but he added the Wolverines wouldn’t go there.

Would he have been so altruistic if a Nittany Lion who was a perfect fit wanted to transfer to Ann Arbor?

That’s difficult to say, like so many things in this turmoil that has rocked Penn State since ­November.

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