Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I always knew that coaching searches involved quite a bit of stress, but nothing compares to the one that University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas is putting forth. This search keeps getting more and more wacky by the day, and it appears just when there is movement and a possible decision has been made, a snag develops and nothing is done. Case in point with the way the past week has gone regarding the search.

First of all, the main choice of Thomas, Shaka Smart, turned down the offer to come to Champaign, instead opting to stay at Virginia Commonwealth, where he is comfortable and building quite a history. The next choice on the list, Butler's Brad Stevens, also turned down the Illini to remain the Bulldogs' coach. There was some confusion as to whether or not an offer was actually made to Stevens, but apparently he was in fact contacted and decided that where he was currently was good enough for him. You really cannot blame these coaches for wanting to stay put, especially since the U of I is undergoing some changes at the top of the administration, which is causing a lot of undue stress to many at the campus.

Which leads us to the current week and the three-ring circus that this has become. Once Smart and Stevens were out of the picture, Thomas set his sights on Ohio University coach John Groce, who just led the Bobcats to a Sweet Sixteen berth in the NCAA Tournament and came within an eyelash of knocking North Carolina to advance to the Elite 8 (the Tar Heels ended up winning in overtime). Groce was an assistant at Ohio State under Thad Matta and was responsible for recruiting Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook to Columbus. With all of the social media avenues out there today, things really can take on a life of its own, and this search certainly has fallen into that category. There was even talk of a press conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon to announce Groce as the new Illini coach, but the Illinois Sports Information office quickly put that rumor to rest when it was revealed that there was no agreement in place after all. Apparently, one of the Illinois trustees is not backing the hire on a matter of racial issues. This dates back to when Tim Beckman was hired as football coach and the same trustee and another one, both of whom are African-American, wanted a minority candidate hired.

So, we wait yet another day for news of an imminent hire of a basketball coach at the University of Illlinois. It still appears that the new coach will be John Groce, but when that is officially announced is still anybody's guess at this point.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Transition Phase

We are now a little over a week since the Fighting Illini bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament, and as a result, Bruce Weber getting fired from the head coaching duties, thus completing AD Mike Thomas' "trifecta" of removing the football coach, the women's basketball coach, and the men's coach all in the same season. Actually, it was only 104 days since Thomas took the job that all of this has happened. Thomas has hired a search firm to assist in the quest for Weber's successor. I'm sure you have all heard of the top candidates rumored to be coming to Champaign, but I thought I would break each one of them down and explain why each would either be a good fit or not.

The top name on everyone's list it seems is current Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, who just bowed out of the NCAA Tournament by losing to Indiana in the third round. Smart has been the frontrunner for pretty much everyone, given his coaching style and his young age. He would be the perfect fit in Champaign, but it remains to be seen if he is interested in leaving VCU for greener pastures and more money to boot. There have been rumors abound that suggest that Smart is interested in taking the job, to those that simply state that he is not wanting to leave VCU, since he has it pretty good out there in Richmond, Virginia.

If Smart doesn't end up taking the job, there are other candidates that would be more than suitable. The first person that comes to mind is current Alabama coach Anthony Grant. Grant fits a couple of key characteristics in he is a minority hire, and also that he has inroads into the city of Chicago. Grant wouldn't be the flashy hire like Smart would be, but he would definitely be more than servicable. Another person that has been mentioned more than once is current Marquette coach Buzz Williams. Since Marquette is still playing in the NCAA Tournament, Thomas cannot and probably will not speak to him until his team is done, and Williams would certainly be a unique personality to replace Weber as coach. Still another person that has been receiving considerable mention for the head coaching position is Duke assistant Chris Collins. Collins, the son of former NBA star Doug Collins, is from Chicago, so he would have the experience needed to recruit that area. Perhaps the main stumbling block for Collins would be his lack of head coaching experience. According to the job description that was posted last week detailing the job, Thomas is looking for someone with previous head coaching experience, something that Collins lacks. It remains to be seen which direction Thomas will go in when it comes to naming a coach, but it sounds like it is Shaka Smart's to turn down. Will Shaka make the Smart move? Only one person probably knows the answer to that question, and he isn't saying anything at the moment.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Another One Bites The Dust

Those familiar with the sport of horse racing have undoubtedly heard of the term "trifecta". The University of Illinois is about to pull a trifecta that I don't think has ever been done before, and that is get rid of the three main head coaches in one calendar year. First of all, back in November, Ron Zook was let go after a freefall that saw the football team go 6-6 after starting the season 6-0. At the time of the perfect start, nobody envisioned that the season would end like it did, much less costing Zook his job. Next, last Friday, new athletic director Mike Thomas announced that women's basketball coach Jolette Law would not be retained following an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, which followed yet another subpar season. During her 5 year tenure at Illinois, Law compiled a dismal 69-93 record, and finished the 2011-12 campaign a very disappointing 11-19, which included the first round loss to Michigan. Law could never really get it going in Champaign, and perhaps her finest moment was landing Destiny Williams as a recruit, but that was very short lived, as she played all of one game before leaving the program and transferring to Baylor, where she had a stellar career.
So, in keeping with the trifecta theme, the fate of men's basketball coach Bruce Weber hangs in the balance, due to his team doing a free fall of their own, starting the season off 15-3, but stumbling down the stretch, finishing the regular season 17-14 and just 6-12 in the Big Ten. This has been a painful season to endure for Weber's group, and covering it on a weekly basis has certainly been no picnic. I remember saying about a year ago that the team's spirit was broken by Jereme Richmond, who ended up leaving school after just one season, and that wasn't even a complete campaign. But, that pales in comparison to what they have done this season. The 2011-12 version of the Illini have lacked heart and desire in many of their games recently, and the 27 point loss at Nebraska a couple of weeks ago was the final straw. All signs are pointing to Weber being fired at season's end, whenever that will be. Thomas has been quoted on several occasions saying that he will evaluate all coaches at the end of the season, and will take into account the entire body of work as it relates over the last few seasons. It is apparent that this Illini team is broken and in dire need of a change at the top, and it is hoped that the current team can put it together and make one last attempt at salvaging a season that is lost in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. By virtue of the Illini's collapse, they earned (if you want to call it that) the #9 seed, and will play Iowa, who is the #8 seed on Thursday morning (10:30 am, BTN). This is actually a decent scenario for the Illini to actually win a game in the tournament and live to see another day, since the Hawkeyes are the only team that they have beaten during this long string of losing. Since the Big Ten Tournament is the only possible chance that the Illini have of making the NCAA Tournament, they will need to pull a major miracle, winning 4 games in 4 days. Since this team has had problems winning a single game over the past 2 plus weeks, that seems a foregone conclusion at this point. Most likely they will be playing in the NIT, and due to scheduling conflicts, will not be able to host a first or a third round game, provided they even get that far. The spirit of the team has been severely damaged, and many are just wanting this season to be over, and the tenure of Weber to be history as well. The only remaining question now is when that will happen.

So, how did we get to this point? The answer to that question can be summarized by two words: Ron Guenther. After all, it was Guenther that gave all three of these coaches extensions on contracts that should not have been extended in the first place. Now, the University of Illinois is faced with yet another buyout of Law's contract, which will total $620,000 over the final two years of the contract. To further this, Weber's buyout has been rumored to be well over $3 million, and this doesn't include buying out the assistant coaches and their contracts. Plus, you have to also shell out money for new coaches in both cases as well. The women's hire won't be nearly as much as hiring a new men's coach, but it still will require an increase nonetheless. Mike Thomas has had quite a few months on the job, and completing the "trifecta" will be his finest work yet.

I feel I need to end this week's installment of the blog with a little good news, and that comes from the wrestling team and Mario Gonzalez, who won the Big Ten title in the 197 lb. weight class. Gonzalez was the first grappler in the 197 lb. class to win a title for the Illini since Pat Quirk accomplished the feat back in 2001. Next up for Gonzalez, the NCAA's in St. Louis beginning on March 15. Joining Gonzalez in the Gateway City will be Jesse Delgado (125), B. J. Futrell (133), Conrad Polz (165), Tony Dallago (184), Jordan Blanton (174) and Daryl Thomas (141).

That's it for this week as we get ready for March Madness. Let the madness begin!