I heard from a bunch of angry Illini fanswhen I said Illinois wasn’t a destination job for anybody you’d want to hire. I said it was a steppingstone job for the guys you’d want to bring in. Bill Self jumped to a heritage program. Bruce Weber had a losing record in the Big Ten.
Or maybe Illini fans got mad at me because I said the place smelled like pigs.
Turns out, I was wrong. The Illinois job isn’t even a steppingstone. No thanks, said Shaka Smart, coach of something called Virginia Commonwealth. No thanks, said Brad Stevens, who’d rather stay at a mom-and-pop school.
Illinois got turned down despite offering to double salaries. Illinois got turned down despite being in a more prestigious conference. Illinois got pantsed. Nice job so far by athletic director Mike Thomas, don’t you think? If I were the headhunter firm he hired, I’d give Thomas double the money back and demand he never reveal the company’s name.
Thomas has fired millions of dollars of coaches in the revenue-producing sports, and he has brought down to the farms of Champaign and Urbana the likes of Tim Beckman and Your Name Here.
Is Thomas that much of a bumpkin that he doesn’t know you must have your new coach handy as soon as you launch your old coach? Hel-LO.
Maybe you can’t announce the new guy because he’s still coaching another school that is doing better things than your now-dead team, but you at least have a handshake deal. That was thought to be the case with Smart.
Thomas had nothing. Thomas had no Weber, no replacement, no backup plan, no way to save face. How long before Thomas pulls on an orange T-shirt and stands at the end of an expressway with a cup and a squeegee or a sign that says “Will Hire Coaches For Food’’?
Part of this might not be Thomas’ fault. He didn’t fire the school president, after all. Still, instability above Thomas’ pay grade combined with embarrassing results in the biggest positions under his control make it look like a clown college instead of the state’s school.
Illinois folks might think they’re offering coaches a top job. That’s their first problem, because they aren’t landing top coaches. Connect the dots, people.
There is a lot of talk about recruiting the Chicago area --- owning the Chicago area. If that’s a demand by the Illinois wonks trying to hire a coach, then those wonks should be fired.
Look, recruiting Chicago and the Public League isn’t the right answer. It’s not the only answer. It can be messy, and it’s not the only place. That’s the point. You sound stupidly provincial when you demand that a new coach own a local recruiting area. You sound like a farmer, frankly.
It’s not about owning Chicago. It’s about owning the nation. Nobody cares where your players are from when you get to the Final Four. That’s the real job. But if owning Chicago is part of the mission statement, then Illinois is empowering city high school coaches more than its own head man. That’s weapons-grade stupid.
If you think you have one of THE jobs, then you hire one of THE coaches. You get a guy who causes whispers, finger-pointing and autograph requests when he walks into a gym. Any gym.
But Illinois isn’t doing that. Illinois can’t do that. Not now, anyway.
But here’s what Illinois can do and should do: Hire a coach who plays the style of basketball that kids want to play.
Forget system guys. Find a run-and-gun fiend. Hire a coach who can teach defense without players knowing they’re actually playing defense, sort of the way you fool kids into eating cauliflower. Find a guy who teaches that the best defense is a fast-break layup.
Rick Pitino does that in Louisville. Billy Donovan does that at Florida. Uptempo game, smother opponents into turnovers, open-court baskets --- fun for everyone. Kids want to take video games on to the court.
Illinois must hire a guy who stresses the kind of game that kids want to play, the kind of game that’s a step above the playground mentality. Those players are all over the country, not just at Simeon. Someone tell that to Illini wonks.
Kids want to play with freedom on the court and dream of the NBA after. A Cinderella coach shouldn’t be the goal for a school that alleges it is big-time and plays in a big-time conference. Not that it can’t work, and in fact, it has. Ohio coach John Groce, who is next at Candidate No., I don’t know, 47 on Thomas’ list, stresses freedom on the court and even lured a Chicago player to Ohio.
Fine, but Illinois needs some marquee value. Illinois needs some showtime. Illinois needs a coach who convinces kids that Illinois is the bridge to the association because of the coach’s history and style.
Reggie Theus is a link to all of that. He played for Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels at UNLV. They ran, all right. Ran the way kids want to play. Ran to free cars and suitcases of money, too. But they brought the playground to the court. They had fun. Nobody at Illinois seemed to be having much fun under Weber.
Theus also played for the Bulls and has coached in the NBA and college. He’s known locally, but he also has some national recognition. “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper’’ can’t hurt, either.
Or try this: Mike D’Antoni.
I don’t know if he’d ever consider a college job, but he’s certainly available after the Knicks forced him out. But here’s the thing: D’Antoni is all about offense. He finds a fast guard, gives him all kinds of freedom on the court, and tells his team to shoot within five or seven seconds. The NCAA tournament is a guard’s tournament, you might’ve noticed.
And the NCAA Final Four teams are about a lot of kids running up and down the court with a lot of freedom. They look like they’re having fun. How long has it been since anyone had fun at Illinois?
I’ll hang up and listen for Thomas’ next hummena-hummena-hummena.
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