By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Hail Alma Mater?
Well, I don’t know, Illinois. After all, can you first tell me what in the Hail is going on down in Champaign these days?
Because I sure can’t tell.
As anyone who reads my columns, follows me on Twitter or is friends with me on Facebook knows quite well, I’m rarely at a loss for words. Especially when it comes to Illini sports. But I have to tell you, these latest events in this ongoing basketball coaching search – check that, coaching odyssey – at the University of Illinois have left me downright dumbfounded.
And, like many other alums, it’s also left me more than a little depressed (and angry) as I’ve watched the school that I proudly graduated from become a national punchline thanks to a saga that’s become more political than a Chicago election and filled with as many twists and turns as an “L” ride through the Loop.
With fired coaches and failed teams littering the Champaign landscape, Illini pride has taken a serious beating of late. But the worst thing about this latest round of bruises is that so much of it is self-inflicted.
First, Illinois trustees Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery painted Illini athletic director Mike Thomas into an incredibly awkward basketball corner by voting against Tim Beckman’s hiring simply because the football coach is white. Then, Illinois president Michael Hogan piled on by making an unstable campus even less stable (no small trick) en route to his resignation last week.
Thomas himself has since gone on to exacerbate the entire situation by inexplicably failing to take a far better look at the interest levels of his top candidates before leaping into the chaotic fray that this search has become.
When it comes to this coaching search turned debacle, I have many questions for Mike Thomas, but here’s my biggest one: Was it ignorance or arrogance that led the rookie AD to pursue Butler’s Brad Stevens after VCU’s Shaka Smart when there clearly was very little chance of luring either of them to Champaign?
The overtures directed toward Smart and Stevens have made Illinois look like an arrogant guy who set his mind on winning over a girl even though he already knew darn well that she’s deeply committed to her boyfriend.
Nevertheless, because this guy is bigger, wealthier and better looking than the girl’s boyfriend, he assumed he could steal her away simply by expressing his interest and flashing a wallet full of cash. Not surprisingly, though – since the girl has already rebuffed the advances of handsome, rich guys (i.e., BCS schools) before – she chose to stick with her boyfriend, no matter how scrawny and average-looking he might appear to be.
By trying to attain the unattainable in Smart and then Stevens, Illinois ended up looking like a buffoon to the nation. Even more so since there were other good coaches likely willing to be wooed before the Illini instead started flirting with ones in committed relationships.
Now, I admire Thomas’ notion of aiming high in a coaching search and then adjusting accordingly. Smart and Stevens were the dream hires, and either of them would have been a home run. But with Illinois’ national reputation so publicly on the line, the AD needed to know for certain that Shaka or Brad were truly interested in coaching the Illini before he directed so much attention toward them.
Clearly, since even $20 million couldn’t lure either of them there, they were not very interested at all.
But because Thomas went after coaches that he – as well as the vast majority of other ADs in the country – couldn’t get, he ended up badly embarrassing Illinois. Twice. And, in turn, Thomas, along with more than a little help from the Illinois trustees and administration, has succeeded in making a very good coaching job look like a radioactive one.
Nothing is more maddening than that, as I still believe Illinois to be a far better job than it now has been made to appear. Now mind you, the Illini gig is also an incredibly complex one, which is something I’ve always stressed. And the fact is, if neither Smart nor Stevens had the appetite to deal with a demanding fandom, a tricky Chicago recruiting scene and an administration that’s still in turmoil, then they were not the right coaching candidates for Illinois.
No matter how talented they may be.
All of those things are realities about Illinois that cannot be changed. Illini fans are not going to suddenly become less emotional. Chicago isn’t going to miraculously become less complicated. And the university’s administration? Well, it certainly isn’t going to fix itself overnight.
Illinois is stuck with those issues – some of them permanently – so there’s no sense in griping about it. And, in light of all that, what the Illini need is a tough-minded and imaginative coach who not only can navigate those ever-swirling storm clouds, but also has the ability to see the silver linings in them.
Silver linings such as, the Illini fan base is also as passionate as any school’s, anywhere. Chicago remains a land of enormous untapped opportunities for Illinois. And with an administration that’s so focused on itself, a new coach ought to have enormous freedom to spread his wings and run his own show.
As of this morning, we still don’t know for certain who Illinois’ next men’s basketball coach is going to be. But whenever he is finally named, I hope he carries those attributes. And I also hope he carries more common sense than those who have been tasked with hiring him.
If the new coach does indeed show all that, then I can think of at least one thing I’ll say about him, despite all this mess.
And that’s Hail yeah.
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.