Back & Forth - Coaching Search
The calm before the storm. That's how I see the early part of this week. The coach is fired, the team is in the NIT, and the AD is waiting for NCAA Tournament teams to lose so he can make a move. So while we have a moment, Tyler and I shared a few emails back and forth.
Starting with this email I sent to Tyler on Sunday:
Let's start at the end and work backwards. What kind of job are we offering the next coach? When he does his homework, what will he find?
For starters, I think our status in the college basketball world is simple: solid program, you can win there, but Chicago is an impossible nut to crack. So the program doesn't recruit itself - you have to put in a lot of work.
As for the current situation, four years with no Tourney so it's not like this is a "one bad year now get us right back to where we were" kind of thing. There will be some patience, I think. Two consecutive firings means that we've been digging at the floor for a while.
Perhaps most importantly, the roster is a decent situation to be taking over. No seniors, so you get a "dress rehearsal" season where you play your 32 games and then start all over again with the exact same team the next season. Your core includes a sophomore point guard who came on strong at the end of his freshman season, a talented two-guard who you need to mold into the go-to scorer, an energy guy on the wing whose role might best be "energy guy off the bench" but perhaps you can make him something more, a talented four-man who rebounds well, and a 4/5 guy who likes to shoot the three. Sophomore - junior - sophomore - junior - junior.
And if you can keep the class intact, you have a 5-star big, a couple fringe top-100 guards, and a project wing from Malcolm Hill's high school. Maybe you can take over the job and land "I grew up an Illini fan" Mark Smith as well?
So I think we have an attractive situation to offer. It's been an ugly ten years, but if we have the cash, I doubt the current program status would scare anyone away, right?
You know I've been thinking about that exact question since Saturday afternoon. As you noted, Groce left the program on relatively solid footing. We appear to have at the very least mid-level Big Ten talent returning and upper level Big Ten talent coming in (assuming the new coach can keep the 2017 class intact - and possibly even land a Mark Smith.) Still, it's a tricky question to navigate because to be honest, our job does come with some legitimate concerns. Win here and you either can stay for life or use it as a springboard to anything - NBA, blue blood program, whatever. Fail here, though, and you'll likely spend the rest of your career swimming upstream.
So to answer the question objectively, I have to step outside my Illini fandom and examine our program in the same way as someone from a national media outlet might view it. Because that's the lens through which just about any of our likely coaching candidates will be viewing the job, and that's the challenge facing Josh Whitman.
You know as well as I do that Illinois basketball fans have exceptionally strong feelings about our place in the college basketball pecking order. At any perceived slight we can assemble the outrage brigade with the best of them. Gregg Doyel calls our job 7th best in the Big Ten. "SEVENTH !!?? "TO THE KEYBOARDS!!"
We deep cut fans know all the numbers and we can argue our place in history with anyone. But the job has lost a lot of shine over the last ten years. Current high school juniors were 8 years old when we were last good. The guys at the top of most short lists (Marshall, Miller, Bennett, Keatts, Martin, Drew, etc) weren't even things yet. A decade of irrelevance has damaged the brand for sure.
Fortunately, though, we have an AD who is one of us - someone with a shared understanding of our program's rich history and the desired vision for its future. He also appears to have the resources he needs to get his phone answered. Still, every school has money these days and I doubt Whitman wants to get involved in a bidding war. As such, I think his pitch will have to lean heavily on the passion for the program he shares with its fanbase. He has to sell our next coach on the idea that the Illinois program we all know wasn't too long ago and what it can be again is not that far away.
Like I said with the Lovie hire, it's not so much Lovie that makes me excited, it's the investment. Even if Lovie fails (and I don't believe Lovie will fail), the large contract shows that the school is willing to invest in football. I feel like we're going to do the same thing here, and I'm going to have the same reaction. This is an administration willing to invest in athletics.
In that Gregg Doyel Twitter conversation you mentioned above, Dan Wolken of USA Today points out that he has Wisconsin ahead of Illinois because of the support from the administration and Doyel agreed, saying "administration is one of the least valued factors for fans, but maybe No. 1 for coaches". And it's no secret that over the last 20 years, our administration wasn't exactly pro-athletics. I mean, they might try to argue that we were, but in the Big Two sports, we have the weakest resume of any Power Five school the last 10 years. Illini fans clung to #WeWillWin so tightly because this last decade we have three 6-6 football seasons and three NCAA appearances (5 seed, 7 seed, 9 seed, two wins).
So on Whitman's third day, we find $21 million for a football coach (INVESTMENT). And I think we're going to open the cash drawer for a basketball coach (INVESTMENT). And that's what has me so excited. Wisconsin's administration drove an investment in athletics which has paid off for 25 years now? Now it's our turn. Football last year, basketball... next week?
Yeah I probably undersold the impact of the dollars Whitman has at his disposal for this search. I don't claim to know the exact numbers but if we are indeed shopping in the $2.5-3.5 million dollar per year neighborhood as has been rumored - that would put our new coach well within the top 20 in the country and near the top three in the Big Ten Conference. Just a remarkable shift in administrative support. I wrote above that Whitman should call upon his inner fanboy as a major piece of his sales pitch, but let's not play - he likely doesn't even get to make that pitch without the requisite cash in his pocket.
I just want that money to go to a coach worthy of the investment. I happen to believe that Whitman has a solid fall back candidate already in his back pocket - possibly one of those who he noted in the press conference had reached out to him already. It seems likely to me that Monty Williams was indeed his first choice - his basketball Lovie if you will. If the reports that Williams passed are indeed true then I hope Whitman takes a couple of big hacks with his next at bat, but if those efforts also prove unsuccessful I want him to quickly move to that back pocket option. One thing my bruised Illini ego will take poorly is another drawn out search dotted with public rejections that ends with us overpaying for a "Plan D" hire.
But hey we have basketball tomorrow! Since this week will crawl by ever so agonizingly as we wait for some of these potential candidates to become available, a couple of NIT wins would certainly be a nice little diversion.
Yeah, I'm really excited about the NIT this year. I wasn't in 2015 (or any other year for that matter), but in coach-fired year, it's 100% free basketball. I want to play five games. I want to play all 12 players. I want to see the team have some fun and win some games. Give us hope for next year, Te'Jon and JCL.
I want to respond to something you said above that - "a coach worthy of the investment". I feel like that's my shortlist. As you know, any time Illini Twitter gets overwhelmingly HERE IS MY TAKE, I want nothing to do with takes. People have been asking me for a shortlist but it feels ridiculous to do one at this point - there are hundreds available. I don't like shortlists anyway - they just set you up for disappointment.
And let's be honest - we all hated the Kruger hire at the time (he had just gone 17-13 in 1995 and 12-16 in 1996) and he turned out great. Weber was also disliked, and 24 months later we were in the title game. We don't really "know" anything until the coach gets here and shows what he has. I laughed and laughed and laughed at the Alford hire at UCLA - does no one remember how putrid he was at Iowa? - and I'm not laughing anymore. It's a total crapshoot, so it's hard to really have a #stance on anyone.
But I really like "a coach worthy of the investment". That's my shortlist. If we're going to spend money, get someone everyone else wants. Make a splash. Land the 4-star recruit with offers from Missouri and NC State. Show us that our place in the college basketball world is quickly approaching the place we all believe we should occupy. A quick, decisive search and "a coach worthy of the investment". I like it.
I'm right with you on the short list thing. For most previous searches I've always advised people to look at the short lists - and then instead bet on the field. The difference with this search is that if I combine all the short lists from every corner of the internet/twittersphere - every single active D-1 coach has been named as a potential candidate for our open job. I even saw Bruce Weber on one - I kid you not. In fact, I deleted a rather lengthy paragraph from my last response to you that was heavy on analysis of our presumed short list. Upon review, though, it just read like a bunch of fluff. Words I wrote to satisfy my own biases - and ultimately kind of pointless. So for now I'll save the analysis until we have our guy.
The process, though, continues to be impossibly entertaining. Every last detail and component of the search fascinates me. I am consumed by it. I am captain of "Team F5". Whitman says no search firm but is likely leaning on input from Jerry Colangelo! WojBomb says no Monty Williams! Flight Tracker shows a plane from CMI to Wichita! It turned back around! Cuonzo Martin just issued a classic non-denial denial! The job posting expires on Monday! Archie Miller against Gregg Marshall in the NCAA Tournament on Friday with the loser getting the first interview! Don't sleep on Bryce Drew! Tony Bennett only makes what?
BRING ME ALL THE RUMORS!! (And at the end of it all - a coach worthy of the investment.)