Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas must conduct coach negotiations in secret as much as possible. Even when he answers reporter questions on the subject of the hiring of John Groce as new men's basketball coach, he must be guarded in some of his responses.
But nothing he said Thursday resembled what was reported frequently around the country regarding what did and didn't happen during the process. Thomas used the Parker Executive Search firm to assist him, so perhaps some of the confusion over who he was contacting originated from their attempt to learn more about various possible candidates.
"The search firm starts with a very comprehensive list. They study this all year. In my office, I've got 18 other sports that I work with. They study it, they've got a very good background in that. They make it a comprehensive, thorough process. They can expedite things to help you be more efficient and help you work through the process until you close the door and select a candidate."
How many coaches did you actually contact about the job?
"I'm not gonna get into numbers. I can't even tell you the number we talked to. At the end of the day, we were trying to gauge the interest of others. You've got to find those where there is a mutual interest. If it is, if there's someone that you are serious about, you move down that path to hopefully get them to become your basketball coach."
In other words, several possibilities were contacted to check their level of interest. If they weren't, nothing further was attempted with them. Perhaps some media discovered these early inquiries and jumped to the conclusion those coaches were offered the job and declined. Thomas made an important distinction between contact and offer.
VCU coach Shaka Smart had what appeared to be an offer from the UI for the head coaching job and turned it down. Thomas wouldn't go into details but confirmed he was contacted.
"There was a list of prime candidates people think you'd be interested in primarily. He was on that list. We looked at a lot of different people.
"I think people made the assumption that not only was Shaka a hot commodity, a well-known coach in the national spotlight, and someone I had a previous relationship with. But Shaka, like others, were great candidates. At the end of the day, I'm happy that John Groce is our new basketball coach."
Was the public drama with Smart a hindrance when contacting other prospective coaches?
"I don't think it affected our pool of candidates that we were interested in. There's a high level of interest in this position. At the end of the day, there's got to be mutual interest. There's got to be a fit."
He also refuted the widely reported notion that pressure from the Board of Trustees to hire a person of color confused and delayed the process. He said neither of the Trustees who raised the diversity issue previously contacted him during his search. He did however have much feedback from the BOT.
"I can tell you that, since the start of this process, I've been in contact more than once with Chairman Chris Kennedy and other board members. They've been very supportive of how the process has panned out.
"Having confidence in how it was playing out and obviously in myself in leading that process. I know Chairman Kennedy's looking forward to meeting the new basketball coach."
Diversity issues were not a hindrance to the process.
"It was not any different than any other search. I think any time you go through this process, you want a quality pool of candidates, and you what a diverse pool of candidates.
"I think that's critically important, and it's important to me. It's important to the school. We did that, and at the end of the day, I believe we hired the best coach for the University of Illinois."
The BOT must ratify Groce's contract, but Thomas was unsure of the timing.
"I don't know when that would be. I believe the next board meeting is in May, but whether that's when this moves forward to the board I couldn't say for sure."
People hungry for a scoop resort to any avenue of investigation they think can give them answers, including checking flights to and from Champaign. Thomas was asked if he had a plane ready for departure to Ohio Tuesday, a day originally rumored to be the announcement date for the new coach.
"I don't know of any planes that were set to go out of Champaign or wherever. I know I was here Tuesday all day, and I don't know of any planes that were scheduled to go out.
"I do know there was a lot out there that was being said that was, I think, thrown against the wall to see what was going to stick. And a lot of unnamed sources. We'd like to know who these sources are because I think a couple weeks I'll look back, finally read all these things that were said. It'll be pretty good fiction reading.
"But no, there was no intent to leave during the week. The last time I was out of town was Monday. I've been in Champaign ever since."
The Assembly Hall crew was ordered to set up a stage for a press conference, to be completed by 3:00 pm Tuesday. It appears someone from the work crew spread the word a presser would be held at that time. So naturally, people jumped to the conclusion the process was delayed for all sorts of strange, incorrect reasons.
"I'm not sure who said it was supposed to be done on Tuesday, or who said it was supposed to be done on Wednesday. That didn't come from me, and it didn't come from anybody who was involved in the process.
"To say there was a flaw in the process because some others thought the press conference was two days ago, that's not true. The process played out accordingly. The negotiation process started on Tuesday, and we continued those last night."
Thomas explained that contract negotiations take time.
"It just takes some time because you're going back and forth with lawyers and representatives. At the same time, you're doing background checks. This process with any coach requires background checks. It takes some time as well.
"You don't go down that path until you are real serious about a candidate. There are things you have to do; you can't just flip a switch to produce those results right away. It's not unusual for it to take a couple days to get those things wrapped up.
"We finally got it wrapped up last night (Wednesday), and being here today was the result of the work from the last 3 to 4 days."
According to Groce's contract, the base pay is $400,000, with a supplemental compensation of $1 million. It's a guaranteed contract with a total compensation of $1,400,000 for five years. The UI also agreed to pay a $200,000 buyout of his Ohio contract.
There were rumors that negotiations hit a snag over assistant coach salaries. Thomas refuted that also.
"We didn't discuss it. I know roughly what the figure is. I think the pool is somewhat in the nature of $450,000, but I can't tell you what that figure will look like. We need to sit down and look at the profile of the staff, who's coming in, who may be returning and what it would take to make that happen."
Many assume the fact that, because a big-name coach wasn't hired, the Illini's reputation had taken a major hit. Thomas was asked if perceptions of the program have changed recently.
"For me personally, it hasn't changed. Many of the national pundits before this process started said it may not be a top-five program, but it's probably a top 10 or definitely a top 15 program.
"I believe that, but there are a lot of reasons coaches leave, and one of them would have to be a perceived fit. Sometimes there's personal reasons, family reasons. A lot of things go into that. Those are difficult decisions to make. I know, I've been there myself and had to make some of those decisions."
With the process finally completed, Thomas can relax knowing he brought in a coach he trusts to lead the Illini back to national prominence.
"I'm excited about the fact that Coach Groce is here and ready to lead our men's basketball program."