Wisch: For Illini Hoops, Loyalty Only Goes So Far
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By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Butler Bulldogs are NIT-bound. And after today’s loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Fighting Illini are headed there, too.
If they even elect to go.
But once the two schools’ seasons are finally over – mercifully, in the case of the Illini – might Butler’s head coach also find himself bound for Champaign?
It’s certainly possible if 35-year-old Brad Stevens – still a national darling despite this season’s mediocre 20-14 record at Butler – decides that he’s now ready to a change of scenery. In turn, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas would also have to present Champaign as his ideal new backdrop.
With a long-term contract at Butler that runs through 2022, Stevens can certainly afford to be choosy with any future coaching destinations. And he very well might not choose Illinois to be his preferred next stop. For quite some time, I’ve heard rumors in hoops circles that Stevens mainly has eyes for Indiana and Duke.
However, considering the success that Tom Crean has finally enjoyed this season in Bloomington, and the fact that 65-year-old Mike Krzyzewski appears to still have a lot of basketball left in him at Duke, neither of those gigs appear to be batting their eyelashes back at Stevens anytime soon.
Taking that into account while also weighing Butler’s 2012 drop-off following back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, it’s not difficult to imagine that Stevens may decide it’s too tall a task to maintain an elite level of talent at Butler.
And as a result, he could opt to strike while his coaching iron is still red-hot and take the best “big-school” job that’s available this offseason.
He could leave for Illinois.
Now, one can also argue whether or not Stevens should be the Illini’s No. 1 candidate to succeed Bruce Weber. I happen to think Stevens is probably the best “coach” available this spring, but I’d also acknowledge that questions about his ability to meet the lofty recruiting expectations of Illinois fans and to sell himself in Chicago are valid ones.
Nevertheless, Stevens would still be a stellar hire for Illinois (as would several other coaching candidates). But one intriguing thing I find about a Stevens-to-Illinois scenario is this:
If he did come to Champaign, how would Illini fans react if in just four or five years from now, Stevens made like a latter-day Bill Self and bolted for a “better job.”
Could Illini Nation handle déjà vu all over again? Would fans even want to deal with that possibility? Is hiring a hot young coach worth that potential pain and risk?
Last March, I wrote a column in which I surmised that Stevens may ultimately end up at Duke succeeding Coach K. My rationale was largely based on how highly Kryzewski spoke of Butler’s precocious young coach throughout the 2010 Final Four weekend.
After Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils nipped Stevens’ Bulldogs 61-59 in one of the most exciting championship games in NCAA history, Coach K was asked what advice he would give Stevens when coaching offers from higher-profile schools started rolling in.
“He has the opportunity now and will always to coach at a place where he believes in the values and believes in the school,” Kryzezwski said, sounding as if he was talking about his own beloved Duke. “Butler will no longer be what it has been, which is pretty darn good. And everything that is good about Butler – which is many things – will be seen in many areas, not just basketball. It’s scary good.”
During that same Final Four, Stevens told reporters in Indianapolis that he read Krzyzewski’s book “The Gold Standard” for inspiration during an exhibition tour of Italy with Butler the previous summer.
“I think the best way I can put it,” Stevens explained, “is coaches like him write books and I get to read them.”
Clearly, there’s mutual admiration between Stevens and Krzyzewski. Perhaps enough that Coach K would eventually pave a path for him to Durham, no matter if that path originated in Indianapolis, Champaign or some farflung locale. If Illinois were to hire Stevens, the fans would need to prepare for such a scenario.
In 2003, when Self spurned Illinois for Kansas, Illini AD Ron Guenther was so upset with Self’s decision to not stick around for the “long haul” that he opted to hire a “loyal” coach in Bruce Weber. If nothing else, Weber proved over the past nine years that he very much is that.
Guenther’s decision, meanwhile, proved to be an incredibly mixed bag for Illini hoops that led to a Final Four but resulted in a startling crash this season.
This month, when it comes time for Mike Thomas to hire Illinois’ next basketball coach, I expect that he’ll choose the hottest rising one that’s available to him. And he should hire that guy – even if there’s a threat he may one day go elsewhere.
After all, loyalty only goes so far.
And, clearly, Illinois basketball needs to go much further.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.