Assistant Athletics Director/Media Relations Kent Brown, head of the Illinois Sports Information Department, appeared on WDWS radio Saturday morning to answer questions and dispel rumors about the basketball coaching searce completed recently. He was surprised and at times shocked at all the incorrect information spreading like wildfire regarding the search.
"A lot of the things me and my staff were reading were disinformation. It was an interesting couple of weeks."
One major controversy began this past Tuesday when false reports of the cancellation of a Tuesday press conference led to wild speculation. Brown describes the situation.
"When Coach (Bruce) Weber was let go, and the previous Friday when Coach (Jolette) Law was let go, we knew there was going to be a press conference at some point to announce both of those coaches. So my staff and myself started putting together some plans of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to host those press conferences.
"For the last two weeks, we've been on call 24/7, ready to pull the trigger when Mike (Thomas, Athletic Director) gives us the word. We knew that the Assembly Hall was not available for a press conference last week because the Cirque (du Soleil) was playing there. This week, it was available all week, so privately I was hoping it would kind of be this week so we could have the men's press conference there.
"On Monday, we started getting serious about getting things set up and in place because it was going to be fairly imminent. Mike indicated earlier that he would like to have those both wrapped up by the Final Four when he went to New Orleans.
"So Monday into Tuesday morning, we started getting everything set. We asked the Assembly Hall workers to get the floor down and the arena set up like a game day. We had the facility staff getting the Hall of Fame room ready for the women's press conference.
"At that point, it became a little bit of damage control on Tuesday because of the report of a press conference that was going to be held Tuesday."
Where did that false rumor get its start?
"When I had talked to some of the folks at the Assembly Hall on Monday night, we needed to be ready to pull the trigger and get things set up and ready to go. I went over there Tuesday morning to find out when we can have this ready. I was told maybe by three a clock in the afternoon. So if we had a press conference at three o'clock, we could have the press conference there.
"There was 30 to 40 guys putting the floor down. At some point, the word spread there was a rush job because we were going to have a three o'clock press conference. That was passed on to somebody at the News-Gazette.
"I was a little bit annoyed that was published on the website without checking it out a little bit. It was something that could have been answered pretty quickly.
"So when we found out that was out there, we got a hold of them and asked them to pull it off the website because it just wasn't true, which set off another whole round of speculation, especially from the Chicago media on why this press conference was canceled.
"You can't cancel something that was never scheduled. That caused a whole different set of issues that just weren't accurate."
With all the interest in the hire and more media involved than ever before, Thomas and Brown estimated the false rumors were 80-90% more common than the truth. False rumors did far more harm than good.
"It's been kind of alarming over the last couple of weeks about the amount of misinformation that people were using from sources. I think the News-Gazette did a very fair job. I think Paul (Klee) did a very good job about checking what he wrote and not writing things that were inaccurate.
"But I do know there was a lot of misinformation in several of the Chicago outlets, both on the radio and reported in the newspapers up there from sources that they had. The reality was that there was only two people within the athletic department who really knew where Mike was at and who he was talking to. That was Jason Lener and Mike himself. And I know they weren't releasing any information.
"Where are all these sources came from, it became kind of a running joke. Who are these sources? Where are they? There's a lot of misinformation out there."
Brown understands the pressures on media to produce results. His job is to coordinate with media, so he understands their needs. It allows him to empathize if not agree with their methods and results. But when misinformation is reported, an unanswered question is whether you try to refute it or ignore it.
"We talked about that. It is a different world with instantaneous information on twitter and social media. There's a lot of pressure on journalists and reporters to push out information immediately, and 24/7. It's an inordinate amount of pressure, and we understand that.
"When Mike is not talking during a search like this, there's a big void out there that everyone has to fill with information. They have to fill space in the paper, they have to fill space on the air, whatever. There's just a lot of speculation.
"In the future, if this ever happens (hopefully we won't have another search for several years), would it be better to have the athletic director give an occasional report to try to quell that? Part of my job is to try to keep people accurate and to keep our reporters from reporting inaccurately.
"It isn't very often when people call me and tell me this is what they had. So it's kind of hard to stop that from going out. Several reporters felt very confident in their sources or wouldn't have printed it, I think. But it was very disturbing to me the number of people who were talking."
Brown also reminded how one must examine the various motives and agendas that might contribute to the generation of intentional falsehoods.
"The other thing is, everybody has an agenda. There are agents of coaches who have agendas; there are coaches who are looking to rework their contracts, so they have an agenda to get their name attached somewhere, whether they're really involved or not. It's just one of those things."
Another rumor spread frequently was the claim Groce was only the 6th or 7th person on Thomas's preference list, that several other coaches turned down the job before Groce accepted. Brown explained how the process works and how the truth may be different than it appears on the surface.
"That is total speculation. The only person who knows if he had a pecking order is Mike. You start out with a list of four, five or six people. Maybe you rank them, maybe you have them just straight across the board. And you say you will talk to those four, five or six people. And then whoever impresses me the most from this group is who I'm going to go after.
The timing of when an AD talks to these coaches is a very fluid thing because, for instance with Shaka Smart, his team was finished the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. So maybe he's available to speak at that point.
"And with Butler and Brad Stevens, their team lost in the middle of the week in the CBI, so then he was available to talk to. Coach Groce's team played this past weekend, so he wasn't available to talk until afterward. If he's the fourth, fifth or sixth person that people confirmed Mike talked to, that doesn't mean that he's not one of the top one, two or three choices. It's just that the timing worked out that way.
"It takes two people to make this work. I'm only using Shaka Smart because he's the one people were talking about. He may have been the first person Mike called. But if you are not interested, he's not the best candidate for Illinois. That coach may not be your best choice if he doesn't want to be here."
Brown says Thomas hoped his press conference comments would help clear up all the confusion. It is doubtful anything will cause all those with misunderstandings to gain enlightenment, but he tried.
"Mike and I talked on Tuesday about a lot of stuff that was going on, especially the supposed press conference that was canceled. He's got a great attitude and a great outlook on this thing.
"He said, 'I'm going to have a chance to explain the truth and tell the true story when we have our press conference. Until then, we're just going to have to live with the bad until we can clarify it."
Based on the comments Brown has received, both Groce and new women's basketball coach Matt Bollant are being received well among Illini Nation.
"The reaction to Coach Groce out of the community has been very positive. I think he made a great impression, as well as Coach Bollant on Wednesday. His record is unbelievable on the women's side. I'm excited to see him get started with that group and to see what he's going to do with those teams."
Brown's first impression of Groce is equally positive.
"Having been around Coach Groce a little bit on Thursday, I think he has a lot of positive attributes. I like his enthusiasm, I like his energy level. I think he's got a personality that will do very well here at Illinois and in Chicago, the state and the Midwest.
"I think he's a Midwest guy from Danville, Indiana, so he's a Midwest-values guy. I don't want to say too much; Bill Self was a pretty impressive person with a charismatic personality. But I can tell from being around him that he's going to be able to talk to many different people just like Bill could. I think he's going to be a really good fit here, and I'm excited to work with him."
Considering the short notice for fans, Brown was pleased with attendance at the presser Thursday.
"I thought it was great that we had almost 500 fans show up on Thursday for Coach Groce's press conference. I thought the Assembly Hall was great; we had a lot of cooperation within the athletic department and the Assembly Hall to turn that thing around on quick notice like that."
Circumstances prevented what might have been a much larger turnout.
"If Mike would have given me 24 hours notice, maybe we could have had a lot more people there. I was aware 9:30-10:00 pm Wednesday night that we were going to have a press conference the next day. You always know that's the deal with a short notice situation like that.
"It was great to have people there that were able to make it in the middle of the day. That's not easy. But the system and the process works that way. You don't get a chance to do too much on an advanced notice on that stuff."
In less than one year, Illinois has replaced its athletic director plus head coaches in its three major sports. Brown hopes the siege is over for awhile.
"It's interesting times. It's been an interesting 3 to 4 months. We've had four major announcements now this year. Hopefully we won't have that many ever again. And hopefully we don't have any for several years."