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Wisch: With House-Cleaning Done, Heat Is Now On Illini’s Thomas

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Cheerleaders for the Illinois Fighting Illini fire up their fans prior to a game.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Cheerleaders for the Illinois Fighting Illini fire up their fans prior to a game. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Dave Wischnowsky Dave Wischnowsky
Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred...
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By Dave Wischnowsky-

(CBS) In the Fall of 1929, after longtime New York Yankees manager Miller Huggins died late in the season from a combination of illness and exhaustion, the Bronx Bombers embarked upon the search for their next skipper.

It didn’t go well.

First, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert offered the job to Donie Bush, who had managed Pittsburgh to second place in the National League before resigning in August 1929. Bush turned it down.

Ruppert then turned to Eddie Collins, who had managed the Chicago White Sox in 1925 and 1926. Collins, though, also told the Yanks “Thanks, but no thanks.”

After a pair of swings and misses, the frustrated owner then decided to stay in-house and offer the position to Art Fletcher, a current Yankees coach. Fletcher, however, also said no. Finally, after three surprising rejections, Ruppert made his pitch to former Yankees hurler Bob Shawkey.

Finally, it connected as the 37-year-old Shawkey accepted what most everyone across the country assumed to have been a coveted gig. After all, these were still the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig.

Nevertheless, the Bronx Bombers indeed had a devil of a time finding anyone to captain their ship for the 1930 season. And if the glamorous New York Yankees – the paragon of sports organizations worldwide – can have a mess of trouble in hiring a new manager, I suppose one shouldn’t criticize the University of Illinois too harshly for having its share of hiccups in pinning down a new basketball coach.

On Thursday, the bad case of Illini indigestion was finally relieved when Ohio University’s John Groce was announced as the 17th men’s head coach in Illinois history during a press conference at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

During his introduction, the well-polished Groce (both in his demeanor and his bald head) said and did all the right things to help soothe a savage fan base.

He mentioned Nick Anderson and the 1989 Flyin’ Illini. He name-dropped Dee Brown and the ’04-’05 bunch. He gave nods to Lou Henson and Bruce Weber.

He didn’t say “jacked” or make any mention of a “long haul.”

For the occasion, Groce’s wife even wore an orange dress – one that she had coincidentally and conveniently purchased six weeks ago.

“I love orange,” Allison Groce explained.

There’s a great chance that Illini Nation will also come to love John Groce. He’s a good hire. With the right staff, he could be a very good one. In time, the man tied with Penn State’s Patrick Chambers as the youngest coach in the Big Ten (age: 40) could even become a great one.

Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But there’s no arguing that Groce is walking into a less-than-great situation at Illinois, what with many fans viewing him as a deep fallback option, several Chicagoland prep coaches publicly raising an eyebrow at his hire and a school trustee going as far as to label him as a “second-tier” option.

Now, none of this Groce negligence is the coach’s doing, mind you. Fans would be wise to remember that. But, as Illinois finally – and mercifully – closes the book on a year during which the heat was on Illini coaches Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law, here’s what we can expect for next season:

All eyes will now turn to Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.

Firing and hiring three high-profile coaches in a single season is a lot for any athletic director to bite off. For a first-year AD who didn’t exactly manage the smoothest of processes, it could be enough of a mouthful to choke on.

After Thursday’s press conference, Thomas characterized the public perception of the Illini coaching search as inaccurate, saying “I’ll go back at some point and read the [media] reports because I enjoy fiction.”

Writing about the AD, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate reported that, “When an aide placed a well-respected Chicagoan’s article in front of him Thursday morning, Thomas took out a red pen and circled one mistake after another. It looked like a dartboard with big red splotches.”

Now, the reality of the Illini coaching search may not have been as messy as it appeared to the public. But it’s almost certain that it also wasn’t as smooth as Thomas claimed when he said, “the process went exactly according to plan.” Like with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Nevertheless, also like most things in life, perception is reality. And the perception of Thomas is that he failed to hire his top candidates in either the Illinois football or basketball search and that he embarrassed Illinois with his failed and highly public pursuits of Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens.

During his tenure as an AD at Cincinnati and Illinois, Thomas’ five highest-profile hires have now been plucked from Central Michigan (football’s Brian Kelly), Central Michigan (football’s Butch Jones), Murray State (basketball’s Mick Cronin), Toledo (football’s Tim Beckman) and Ohio (John Groce).

The men that Thomas hired at Cincinnati have all proven to be a success (Kelly has since moved on to Notre Dame). His coaches at Illinois very well might prove to be the same. I like both Beckman and Groce. And if a guy can coach – and win – it shouldn’t matter where he hails from.

But with such an established record of hiring mid-major coaches, it’s understandable why some Illini observers are questioning whether Thomas is cut out to be a big-time AD in the Big Ten and if he has the salesmanship skills necessary to reel in big fish – whether they be coaches or donors for an Assembly Hall renovation.

On Thursday, Groce said: “There are always skeptics in every part of life. If you don’t have thick skin in this profession you’re going to be in trouble. You can’t please everybody. You have to do what’s right.”

The new coach was speaking about himself, of course. But he just as easily could have been talking about Thomas, who could use skin as thick as an elephant’s hide after the past couple weeks.

After this remarkably tumultuous year, Illini fans now finally get a chance to catch their breath this spring and summer. Thomas, meanwhile, will surely be holding his own at least a bit as he watches how the coaches that he’s staked his reputation upon fare in Champaign.

After cleaning house, the Illini athletic department is now without a doubt Thomas’ and Thomas’ alone. Ironically, though, during his house-cleaning, the AD didn’t simply oust Weber and Zook from Illinois, he also managed to take their place as the state’s biggest lightning rod.

The Illini’s next chapter now awaits.

Perhaps filled with more shocking twists.

davewisch Wisch: With House Cleaning Done, Heat Is Now On Illini’s Thomas

Dave Wischnowsky

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.

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