Early Illini Basketball Coach Speculation

Fighting Illini fans are waiting with great anticipation for the hiring of a new basketball coach to replace the fired Bruce Weber. They expect greatness and will settle for nothing less. Mike Thomas has the unenviable task of satisfying everyone while meeting guidelines established by him and demanded by others. This is a preliminary look at possible coaches under consideration.

Mike Thomas wants to win championships in all sports at Illinois. That goes double for men's basketball, long a bellwether of Illini athletics. He wants a proven head coach if at all possible. At least two members of the UI Board Of Trustees have gone on record as wanting a black coach. Who are the possible candidates on Thomas's want list?

First of all, we must list coaches who have enjoyed great success recently. Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart is considered one of the early favorites based on his success in the NCAA Tournament and the fact he is black. Smart knows Thomas from when both were at Akron. It is unknown what the two think of each other.

If skin color isn't an issue, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has taken a group of upperclassmen overachievers and dominated the Missouri Valley this year. Reports suggest he might be a Bruce Weber clone, coming from obscurity to achieve success in the MVC. He is no doubt an outstanding coach, but recruiting might be difficult for him since he lacks familiarity with the Midwest and particularly Chicago.

Lorenzo Romar is an outstanding recruiter who coached St. Louis U before moving to Washington. He knows the territory and is a minority. Plus, he is said to be close to Sonny Parker and his superstar son Jabari, a junior at Chicago Simeon. On the down side, he's a Washington alum in the second year of a ten year contract at the age of 52.

Marquette coach Buzz Williams is considered a "home run hire" by former Illini star Stephen Bardo, but it would take a bundle of money to get him to move. So is Brad Stephens. He took two consecutive Butler teams to the national championship game. He has already turned down several strong inquiries for his services and may not want Illinois either.

Others who have seen their names associated with the UI include Anthony Grant at Alabama, unlikely to leave the South; Maurice Cheek, former NBA player and now an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder; former Chicago Bull star Reggie Theus, who has star power but failed in his first attempt as a head coach with New Mexico State; and Kansas assistant Danny Manning, who is considered ready to start his head coaching career.

The previous four are black, and so is Oregon State head man Craig Robinson, who has strong ties to Chicago and U.S. president Barack Obama through his sister, Obama's wife Michele. Robinson has improved the Beavers, but his record this year is uninspiring.

Robinson fits another category as well. Thomas was hired by UI president Mike Hogan in part because both are represented by the Parker Executive Search firm. It is not believed Thomas is required to use that firm in his coaching hires, but he may turn to it if he needs help lining up quality candidates.

Among those coaches hired by major colleges from the Parker Executive Search stable are Herb Sendek at Arizona State, Geno Ford at Bradley, Ron Hunter at Georgia State, Tom Crean at Indiana, John Calipari at Kentucky, Matt Brady at James Madison, Trent Johnson at LSU, Chicago native and former Cal coach Ben Braun at Rice, Mark Gottfried at NC State and Mark Montgomery at NIU.

Also, Joe Scott at Denver, Mark Fox at Georgia, Jim Larranaga at Miami, Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee, Fran McCaffery at Iowa, Tubby Smith at Minnesota, Lon Kruger at Oklahoma, Mike Anderson at Arkansas and Larry Shyatt at Wyoming.

Hunter, Johnson, Montgomery, Martin, Smith and Anderson are all black. Some are too old, some lack the big-name buzz Illini fans seek, and some are either entrenched in their schools or new arrivals eager to continue at their present schools. But one of the coaches in the Parker Executive Search firm is a possibility if its advice is sought.

If we study Thomas's M.O. in hiring coaches, we can't overlook the possibility of a MAC coach or someone else from a Midwest program. He hired Brian Kelly and Butch Jones from Central Michigan for his football coaches at Cincinnati, and he hired Mick Cronin, an assistant with Cincinnati before being elevated to the head basketball job. He hired Tim Beckman to coach football at Illinois after he spent three years at Toledo.

Another interesting if possibly irrelevant uniqueness about his hires is their relative height. Thomas is a slender person standing generously at around 5'-9" tall. None of his hires have been significantly taller than him, and some were shorter. If he is attracted to small coaches, Cronin is both short and slender. For that matter, Smart is both black and short.

Other possibilities may surface with time. Regardless of the quantity, there may be only a few who have any chance of both recruiting and coaching successfully at Illinois. Considering how demanding Illini Nation is, any failure in this hire will be viewed poorly by the fandom. If so, Thomas may see his popularity plummet, just like Ron Zook and Bruce Weber before him.

Thomas needs to hire greatness. Illini fans hope and pray he succeeds.

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