CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Ashton Washington certainly isn’t getting handed the easiest assignment in the Illinois football program.
At just 23 years old, Washington, who was officially named as the first female African-American full-time staff member in Illini football history and the first full-time female hire of Lovie Smith’s five-year tenure, is putting herself in charge of being the point person and face of Illinois in-state recruiting.
"This is something I’ve truly, truly taken in as a trailblazer," Washington said Wednesday morning via a Zoom video conference. "It’s not just for African-American women, it’s for other women behind me. That’s my main goal for young girls who are looking up to me right now is that it’s possible for them to do the same if they are planning to go down this same route.”
The idea of hiring full-time female staff members in college football isn’t completely foreign but it is rare. The University of Florida football recruiting operation is coordinated by Lee Davis and she was hired by then-Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen in 2011 after Davis served a 22-month apprenticeship as a student assistant under Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Davis, who followed Mullen from MSU to Florida in 2017, was the first female recruiting coordinator in Southeastern Conference football history and is still the only woman to serve in the position in Power Five Conference college football history.
In her first media conference since her hiring announcement, Washington said that she’s already begun to familiarize herself with the demographics and contacts critical to having success in recruiting both Chicago and downstate Illinois.
In-state recruiting currently ranks near the top of the list of concerns for Illinois fans after the 2020 recruiting class failed to produce a single in-state high school signee and the Illini program failing to produce an in-state signee rated higher than three stars (according to 247Sports.com) during Smith’s time in Champaign-Urbana. Smith famously stood behind a podium to announce the early signing portion of the 2020 recruiting class and said his Illini staff offered scholarships to 19 prospects who resided inside the state of Illinois but were rebuffed on every proposal. The implication of Smith's comment being the evaluation of effort of keeping talented Illinois players home is there but the planning, execution and overall on-field product isn’t still at a point where in-state high school programs are going to highly suggest the Illini as a realistic option.
According to 247Sports.com, 15 of the top 20 state of Illinois prospects in the 2021 recruiting class have already verbally pledged their services to programs that aren’t located in Champaign and of those 15 in-state recruits, 12 have committed to programs outside the state lines.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge overall and biggest aspect of what I’m trying to do,” Washington said Wednesday when asked about the perception of the current mindset of in-state recruits not initially thinking about going to Illinois.
Washington grew up in Mississippi where high school talent have been indoctrinated shortly after birth to immediately think about wanting to wear the maroon and white colors of Mississippi State or the red, white and blue of Ole Miss before and possibly even more than wanting to play in the National Football League. Washington has made a professional name for herself in the Houston area where in-state recruits are likely to think about and get pressure to stay inside the state border to play for either Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, TCU or any number of local Football Bowl Subdivision school options.
“On a Zoom (video conference) call with Lovie, his two things about hiring me was one, I was qualified but two, he wants to continue to build and change that (in-state recruiting) culture,” Washington said. “When I walk into the offices of high school coaches, I expect to see them have Illinois mugs on their desks.”
While NCAA rules prohibit staff members who aren’t on-field coaches to leave campus for home visits with specific recruits, Washington, as director of high school relations, can be in direct contact with parents and high school coaches over the phone and on Zoom video conferencing to help organize the Illini’s recruiting efforts.
“Ashton Washington brings a unique skill set to the Smith Center, really something that no one else in the building has at this time," Smith said in a university statement on May 19. "She is high energy, extremely organized, and brings a different perspective on how we will engage with recruits when they are on the University of Illinois campus. Ashton is a great fit with our staff and program. I can't wait for all of us to be together again working toward bringing the best student-athletes we can to our campus."