By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) It’s difficult enough to hire the right basketball coach at Illinois, without choosing to limit the field of candidates beforehand.
Finding a good fit for the job is tough for a school that, itself, doesn’t quite seem to fit. It’s a rural college with inner-city recruiting expectations, a major program that clearly isn’t a Major Program. It may still be a springboard for a rising, young coach, and not a destination.
So it would be silly to only be looking at faces of a certain color, as was the case when the search was beginning. The good news, now, is that better sense is starting to inform the process.
AD Mike Thomas came under fire in January from two members of the Board of Trustees in the wake of his choice of Tim Beckman as football coach. Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery voted against approval of Beckman’s contract, believing that Thomas had not tried hard enough to hire a black coach (despite the fact that Houston’s Kevin Sumlin was a top choice before he leveraged Illinois’ interest into a richer pact at Texas A&M).
The two made a convincing enough case at the time – both publicly and privately – that sources indicate that Thomas was, indeed, prepared to focus primarily on black coaches after he fired Bruce Weber. A previous connection to VCU’s Shaka Smart from their days at Akron has made him the ideal choice for Thomas — a smart, respected, energetic, innovative winner who is clearly ready for a step up in size and class.
The early names after Smart, though were less exciting. Reggie Theus has been charming Thomas and those above him, successfully enough to earn full vetting and real viability. Alabama’s Anthony Grant was also mentioned, as was Tommy Amaker of newly-resurgent Harvard.
Something significant happened Thursday, however, that should please Illini fans looking for the best possible coach. During a break in a trustees’ meeting in Urbana, Oliver told the AP he was happy with the current search, and could now support a non-minority hire. After a recent update he received from Thomas, he feels good about the process.
My sources confirm this, adding that the private efforts by Thomas and others to allay board-members’ concerns have been largely successful, helped in no small part by Smart’s high-profile status as the primary option.
So there is new legitimacy to the idea that Baylor’s Scott Drew or Gregg Marshall of Wichita State could be in play. Duke assistant Chris Collins is also surfacing in reports (but one look at the Mike Krzyzewski Coaching Tree of Death should have any AD wondering if Collins is just the next to underwhelm).
This is how it should be, of course.
Thomas owes the university and the fans only the best choice to win basketball games, not to make some symbolic gesture of racial equality. It’s possible, sure, that a black head coach will be better received by the gatekeepers of Chicago’s seedy amateur-talent complex, but that’s only one consideration in a much bigger picture.
And it is true that Weber was uncomfortable with all that surrounded many big-city talents, always carping about “distractions” from hangers-on, moaning about how advice from players’ family members outweighed his own coaching instructions, and struggling with how to balance NBA futures with current roles.
But that’s not necessarily because Weber was white, it’s because Weber was Weber.
His successor needn’t be defined by what Weber was not, or by any shallow, imagined picture of what the Illini coach should look like. All Mike Thomas should be asked to do is find the right guy.
Here’s hoping the next man in charge of Illinois basketball is judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his coaching.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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