As one door closed for Chuck Lillie earlier this year, another burst open.
Lillie, who worked as an off-field analyst at Clemson last season, had a pair of January interviews at North Carolina State, which had an opening for an assistant director of player personnel. Lillie didn’t get the job. Instead, he accepted a position as Western Carolina’s director of scouting Feb. 15.
Three days later, he received a message out of the blue.
It was Hank Jacobs, Kansas State’s director of football administration.
Lillie didn’t know Jacobs personally. Didn’t know anyone on K-State’s staff, in fact. Candidly, Lillie admitted he “didn’t have any connections” to this part of the country.
Lillie’s lifeline was Billy Glasscock ... NC State’s director of player personnel. The man who a month earlier had informed Lillie that NC State was going in another direction for the vacancy Lillie had interviewed for.
A missed opportunity transformed into a new hope.
Glasscock, close friends with K-State running backs coach Brian Anderson, passed Lillie’s name along to Jacobs, who was looking to fill a newly created position for the Wildcats: scouting analyst.
“I didn’t really hold my breath on it,” Lillie told The Mercury in a phone interview. “I just had Hank reach out to me, saying he wanted to hop on the phone.”
Things moved quickly after that.
Lillie spoke with Jacobs for 20 minutes. A day later, they set up an in-person interview in Manhattan. A week after the interview, the Wildcats had their man.
“When I was offered the position,” Lillie said, “I accepted it right there over the phone.”
Venables, Klieman’s words lead to excitement
After taking the job, Lillie told his parents.
Brent Venables was next.
“He was really excited for me,” said Lillie, referring to Clemson’s defensive coordinator who played and coached at K-State in the 1990s under legendary head coach Bill Snyder. “Over the next couple of days before I left Clemson, we talked a few times — not too long; briefly — but he talked about Manhattan and the passion that this fan base has for this team. Not that I wasn’t excited or fired up prior to those conversations, but it made it very real for me coming from ‘Coach V,’ telling me all that. I know he’s got a lot of pride and passion for K-State.”
Lillie’s enthusiasm continued to soar after speaking with K-State head coach Chris Klieman, whom he dubbed a “salt-of-the-earth kind of guy” after a 20-minute conversation.
“As if I needed another reason to be fired up, I feel like I’m coming from a great spot at Clemson where we’ve won at the highest level, and now you’ve got Coach Klieman, who’s won seven national championships at the FCS level, four as a head coach and three as a D-coordinator,” Lillie said. “I don’t know that there could have been someone who I would have wanted to work for more.”
No stones unturned
Lillie’s responsibilities with the Wildcats will involve film evaluation — his area of expertise — and assisting the football staff with recruiting. He’ll also work closely with Jacobs and Taylor Braet, K-State’s director of football recruiting, when prospects make on-campus visits.
“We are thrilled to have Chuck as a part of our program,” Klieman said in a release announcing Lillie’s hire March 19. “We knew we wanted to expand our recruiting staff and provide more assistance for Taylor and Hank Jacobs, and to get someone like Chuck is phenomenal for our program. He not only comes from one of the top football programs in the country, he has tremendous organizational skills, brings a great deal of energy and is well-connected in the recruiting world. We are excited to have him on board.”
Even more thrilling for K-State will be if it can come close to approximating the success Lillie enjoyed at Clemson.
During his time with the Tigers from 2015 to 2019 — first as a recruiting assistant (2015-17), then defensive graduate student intern (2018) and finally an analyst (2019) — Lillie was part of a program that established itself as one of the nation’s best.
The Tigers went 69-5 in that span, including a 38-2 mark in regular-season ACC contests. They’ve won five consecutive ACC championship games. They’ve appeared in the College Football Playoff every year dating back to 2015, advancing to the national title game four times. Most importantly, they have two victories in those national championship tilts, both coming at the expense of Nick Saban and Alabama.
The first three years of Clemson’s ongoing dynastic run, Lillie focused on recruiting.
Namely, learning how to use the software responsible for the Tigers’ prospect database. A “typical day,” Lillie said, involved creating prospect profiles and filling them out with as much information as possible.
“I’d say the No. 1 way we came across players at Clemson was, coaches would be out on the road during contact periods and they’re going through high schools and talking to coaches and getting lists of names of players and sending that list back to Clemson,” Lillie said. “Then me and a bunch of my co-workers in the recruiting department — I wasn’t the only one; there was probably 10 or 12 of us all working together — were taking those lists of names and fleshing profiles out to the best of our abilities. If those players needed to be sent for evaluation according to the coach, then we would send them. If they didn’t, we’d just have their profile created and sometimes coaches would come to us with projects.”
Those “projects” normally centered around high-stakes battles with other schools over coveted prospects. Lillie might comb through another team’s roster to gauge its projected positional depth chart; if it was a particularly deep spot for the opponent, that might work in the Tigers’ favor. Lillie also might compare Clemson to a recruiting rival in another way: Each school’s ability to send players to the NFL.
“You’re just looking for slight edges in recruiting,” Lillie said, “just making sure that we’re not leaving any stones unturned.”
Learning from irregularity
Mirroring their on-field exploits, more often than not, the Tigers get their way on the recruiting trail. Especially when juxtaposed against its fellow recruiting blue bloods — Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State — Clemson’s success rate borders on the unbelievable.
The Tigers offered 106 prospects in 2020; they signed 24 players, all during the early signing period in December. That means Clemson converted 23% of its offers into eventual signees. Compare those 106 offers to its four regal rivals: LSU (316 offers), Georgia (267), Alabama (252), and Ohio State (206).
Yet Clemson’s knack for capitalizing on its scarce offers (at a far higher rate than schools it regularly competes against for four- and five-star prospects) might not even be its most impressive recruiting feat.
Somehow, in a world where most players’ pledges are nothing more than words, the Tigers haven’t had a decommitment in more than three years. Per Clemson’s 247Sports affiliate, the last time the Tigers had a player decommit was December 2016, “when Class of 2017 back Cordarrian Richardson and Clemson parted ways due to academic-related circumstances on Richardson’s end.” One must dig even further for the last time another school flipped a Clemson commit: Georgia swiped Class of 2015 defensive back Juwuan Briscoe in November 2014.
How does Clemson do it?
Lillie said there’s no “big secret.” Part of it, he believes, is that other schools simply take a polar-opposite approach to Clemson’s philosophy.
“I think a lot of schools are quick to offer and are slow to get to know you. I think there’s a lot of non-committable offers that exist out in college football, and that’s not what Clemson does,” Lillie said. “Clemson is extremely slow to offer. Very, very, very rarely is Clemson out there offering a sophomore; it’s almost exclusively your junior year or senior year that you’re getting an offer from Clemson.”
That’s because Clemson’s coaching staff extols its culture above all else. Don’t get it twisted, Lillie said: To receive an offer from the Tigers, a prospect must exceed a certain (read: sky high) talent threshold. But that’s not the sole criteria Clemson uses in its evaluations.
“You have to be the right person, have the right character and be made of the right stuff, too, so they’re extremely selective in who they offer,” Lillie said. “They work extremely, extremely hard. They’re very diligent in getting to know the recruits and their families prior to offering.”
Lillie already senses a similar vibe in Manhattan.
“It seems like the coaching staff here at Kansas State is right in line with that in terms of their philosophy of getting to know people and getting to know the person and their family and having it be about the culture and not just talent,” Lillie said, “because talent will win you games, obviously. But culture and character is what will keep you winning games.”
Lillie acknowledged that he's never been bitten by the "coaching bug." His lone season as a defensive graduate student intern in 2018, however, paid dividends. Working with Clemson's defensive coaches, led by Venables, Lillie assisted the staff with practice preparations, diagramed offensive plays from upcoming opponents and helped out with other aspects of game planning.
It also expanded his football I.Q.
"I think gave me a greater insight into the game, into the X's and O's of it," Lillie said. "I've always been passionate about evaluating talent. ... I think working with our defense and working with our coaches gave me a little insight into how they're — because they're evaluators, too, at the end of the day — when they're recruiting players, they're talking about what they like, what they don't like. They're comparing and contrasting different guys that they have on their boards. I think that really helped me grow as an evaluator to see what coaches like and don't like (and) learn their recruiting philosophy and how I can bring that with me."
Lillie vowed that he similarly benefited from spending the preseason with the New York Giants last year. As a scouting intern with one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, Lillie's day-to-day duties ran the gamut.
If a free agent was in town for a workout with the team, he would pick up the player from the hotel, taking great care to ensure they filled out their medical history prior to taking an on-site physical. If a more extensive procedure was needed, such as an X-ray, Lillie would drive the player to a facility in Paramus, N.J., to undergo testing.
After workouts ended, Lillie had to keep the player "quarantined and entertained" while awaiting word from Giants general manager Dave Gettleman and then-head coach Pat Shurmur on how to proceed.
From time to time, Lillie helped out during practice, working with the analytics team as they charted various parts of the session.
Then, of course, came the all-important player evaluations.
"I sat down with several members of the pro department with them, learned how they watch film, how they evaluate each position — what to look for and learn how they grade players according to Dave Gettleman's grading scale," Lillie said. "Once the roster cutdowns really started rolling, it was about making sure that we kept tabs on all those players."
Whenever the team's director of pro personnel, Ken Sternfeld, felt he needed assistance breaking down players, he handed the names off to Lillie and two of his intern counterparts, Blaise Bell and Tom Rudawsky.
"We would divvy up those names and evaluate them," Lillie said, "and give them grades to the best of our ability. Those grades would be taken into effect, which was really cool for us."
Perhaps the most galvanizing task — one which Lillie repeatedly described as "awesome" — was live, in-game scouting of preseason contests. Each of the interns had specific assignments.
One may be trying to figure out whether a player is right- or left-hand dominant. Another may be eyeing kickers during pregame warmups. It's a methodical process, with Lillie pointing out there were numerous questions that needed to be answered every time he watched a field-goal attempt.
- How many kicks do they make?
- On misses, where does it come from? Was he lined up on the left hash or right hash? How far was the errant kick?
- How much time elapsed from when the ball was snapped to the time it landed?
Punters received the same thorough treatment, as Lillie and the interns jotted down the distance and hang time of each kick.
His summer stay in New York, Lillie said, helped him develop a sense of how NFL teams assess ability (or lack thereof). Now, it's another tool in his arsenal.
"Knowing what it's supposed to look at the high school level, seeing what it's supposed to look like at the college level and then seeing how it's evaluated at the pro level, I think it gives me a holistic picture as to evaluations and knowing what to look for," Lillie said. "(That involves) the tangibles and the intangibles of a player in high school and who he might grow into at the college level and how he projects the three, four, five years you have him in college and then beyond that as well — not just as a player, but as a person, too."
Title in his sights
Lillie's aims at K-State are straightforward. He wants to help the Wildcats recruit at a level that can help them win the Big 12 championship for the first time since 2012.
"The way the College Football Playoff is structured, if you win your conference, you've got a (dang) good chance," said Lillie, who used a more colorful term than "dang" to illustrate his point. "If you win your conference, you've got a great chance. So that's where we're going to start."
Under Klieman's guidance and leadership, Lillie believes K-State is well on its way.
"We're off to a great start in recruiting in this 2021 class," he said. "I think we're going to have a chance to compete, every year, for the Big 12. ... That's my job: recruit the players who can get us there on the field, but at the same time, recruit the people who are going to enhance and sustain the culture of our program inside the building. That's really going to propel us forward and keep us at the top of the mountain."
Lillie implied that he plans to remain in Manhattan long enough to see it through.
A Baltimore native, Lillie grew up a diehard fan of the Ravens. As long as Lillie can remember, he's been fascinated with the personnel side of football. Combining those two passions, Lillie said he once dreamed of working in an NFL front office, holding the title of GM or perhaps a director of pro or player personnel.
But Clemson changed him.
The longer he worked for the Tigers, and the more time he spent around the team's players, Lillie began to realize he didn't need to work in the NFL to make his aspirations a reality.
"I think you really can impact the lives of the guys that you have in your building a lot more at the collegiate level than you can at the professional level, because you're able to bring in a 17-year-old, 18-year-old kid and use everybody in the building to help him grow into a young man," he said. "You're taking this raw piece of clay and helping mold him into the future father and husband and member of the community that he's going to be."
As intense as Lillie is about recruiting and evaluating football players, ultimately, that's not where he finds his greatest fulfillment. Helping others become the best person they can be is his chief objective. Lillie does that "just by trying to be the best version of myself around them." He can do that anywhere.
That's why he's content.
"Right now, I'm right there: a scouting/player personnel role with a Power 5 team," he said. "So I can't say that this job with Kansas State isn't already my dream job."