By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Twelve years ago, after Lon Kruger bolted Champaign for NBA riches in Atlanta, it appeared that Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther had his successor in hand.
“The podium is set up at midcourt in the Assembly Hall,” read the lead sports story in the Champaign News-Gazette on June 7, 2000. “Ron Guenther has found the guy he wants standing behind it.”
That same day, the News-Gazette’s longtime Illini observer Loren Tate added in his column, “If you believe Ron Guenther has had his man from the start, you are on the money.”
Those stories were of course talking about Bill Self, right?
Nope. They were actually talking about Kelvin Sampson.
Yes, that Kelvin Sampson.
Younger Illini fans – or simply those without the memory of an elephant – might not recall that a dozen years ago, it looked as if Illinois was about to hire Oklahoma’s Sampson, the same coach who six years later went on to achieve Illini infamy as the force behind the vitriolic Eric Gordon fiasco at Indiana.
Back on June 7, 2000, though, the News-Gazette reported in a 1,204-word story that Wednesday afternoon, “Guenther has asked for and received permission to talk to Oklahoma basketball coach Kelvin Sampson. If it works like past Guenther hires, Sampson will be introduced Friday as Lon Kruger’s replacement.
“The Illinois athletic director flew Tuesday to meet with Sampson at an undetermined location. With Sampson running his basketball camp this week, the meeting likely was close to the Oklahoma campus.”
At the end of the story, it was mentioned: “Guenther also hasn’t contacted Tulsa. From the moment Kruger left for the Atlanta Hawks, Tulsa coach Bill Self was considered a top Illinois candidate.”
Late that Wednesday night, however, word came that Sampson had turned down the Illinois job, telling the Daily Oklahoman, “Ron and I discussed the Illinois job and we both decided to go a separate direction. Leaving OU for Illinois is not the no-brainer some people might think it is.”
By Friday, Self was being announced as the new coach of the Fighting Illini and the rest is, well, Illini history.
A complicated one.
Before the twists and turns of the past decade began, though, what exactly happened with Kelvin Sampson back in 2000? All these years later, it still remains unclear. Despite Sampson’s public “rejection,” Guenther later said the only coach ever offered the Illini job was Self, and that he never met face-to-face with Sampson in Oklahoma City.
“Kelvin wanted to meet in person to discuss what we had talked about on the phone,” Guenther said after Self’s hiring. “When I arrived [in Oklahoma], there were TV cameras everywhere … at the hotel, at his home. It was a media circus, and we were exposed. Speculation was running wild. In terms of his people there, Kelvin couldn’t afford that. So we called it off, and we never met face-to-face. I was there two hours.”
Ironically, late this Thursday night, Loren Tate wrote at IlliniHQ.com that despite an “unsourced report” in Wednesday’s Chicago Sun-Times about an eight-year, $20.8 million contract that prompted Shaka Smart to publicly renounce his interest in the Illinois job, it’s unclear if the VCU coach was ever actually interviewed by the Illini and held a formal offer.
Tate writes, “It is my opinion that neither of these things happened. This mating dance was still in the preliminary stage. I’m confident [first-year Illinois AD Mike] Thomas intended to meet him, but I don’t believe it had happened yet.”
Now, whether Shaka Smart did or did not turn down an official offer from Illinois this week, the example of Kelvin Sampson “rejecting” the Illini 12 years ago shows that a perceived “Plan B” doesn’t automatically lead to disaster.
Self was a far better hire than Sampson would have been (just ask Hoosiers fans). Smart, meanwhile, is far more Self than Sampson, and undoubtedly he would have been a home run hire for new Illinois AD Mike Thomas. For a variety of reasons, though, Illinois and Smart did not connect.
His public dismissal of a potential Illini opportunity was a major PR blow for an athletic director trying to find his footing and a university that’s reeling on multiple levels. However, Illini fans would be wise to not give up the ghost just yet on Thomas hiring a very strong coach to replace Bruce Weber.
It’s smart (pun intended) to first wait to see what happens. Because, while Shaka is certainly a star, he’s not the alpha and the omega of coaches. There are other highly talented candidates out there, and surely those that are more interested.
That is, if the never-ending instability at Illinois – which suffered another seismic shift on Thursday when embattled president Michael Hogan resigned – doesn’t send them all running for the hills.
While it’s arguable just how much of an impact a school president has on a coach’s decision to join a school, my biggest question with Hogan’s resignation is how potential candidates will now view Mike Thomas’ own job stability. With, the man who hired Thomas now out the door, does the rookie AD have the full backing of Illinois’ interim president Robert Easter and the administration?
Can Thomas show coaching candidates that he does? And does he have the powers of persuasion to convince them that the many complexities surrounding the Illini basketball job can be overcome?
Back in 2000 when writing about the Illini position that he thought Kelvin Sampson was about to assume, Tate wrote, “Forever hanging over this job is the ugly and deeply felt assumption that under-table recruiting outstrips above-board efforts in the inner city [of Chicago].”
Twelve years later, we heard rumors that those same concerns were affecting Shaka Smart’s interest in the Illini job. Proving that even as much as some things may change, other things never seem to at all at the University of Illinois.
Where nothing is ever simple.
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.