Colorado athletic director Rick George didn't quiet any speculation that he is a candidate for the open Illinois athletics director position. Actually, he probably added fuel to the fire of that hot rumor.
“Nobody has called me and I haven’t talked to anyone,” George told CUBuffs.com. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say at one point in my life being AD at Illinois wasn’t my dream job. But I love it here at Colorado and I’m excited about what we’ve accomplished since I’ve been here as well as what the immediate future holds. But I just think it’s way too early to be talking about anything right now in that regard.”
George appears to be a great fit for Illinois at this challenging time. He is a former Illinois football player. He is a former Illinois football staff member, serving as recruiting coordinator under former head coach Mike White. George, a former member of the Texas Rangers front office who served as chief operating officer and president of business operations, has extensive executive experience. George, who served on the PGA Tour as the president of the Champions Tour and as the executve vice president and chief of operations, has extensive fund-raising and marketing experience with large corporate sponsors and donors. He now is a power-five conference athletic director who is leading a nine-figure athletic facilities upgrade as Colorado continues its tough transition into the Pac-12.
George just makes sense for Illinois following the Mike Thomas era. Although Thomas helped modernize Illinois athletics marketing, sponsorships and outreach, many fans and alumni again want someone with Illinois ties. George obviously has those, but unlike Ron Guenther, he is more in touch with modern college athletics and understands that Illinois cannot operate as the University of East Central Illinois, a good-ole-boys network. Illinois needs to be a state-wide -- and maybe eventually, a national -- brand. And George should understand the challenges of that process and have the support of the people who can help lead Illinois to those goals.
Would George have interest in the Illinois job? Yes, according to a source. The Illinois grad bleeds orange and blue. He wants to see Illinois football sell out Memorial Stadium like it did under White in the 1980s. As he admitted publicly, Illinois was his "dream job." It's a safe bet to assume it still is. But...
If I were a power-five conference athletic director who likes my job, I would not want to interview for the job for fear that it would leak and serve as a slap in the face of a university for which you appreciate and enjoy. If George is your guy, Illinois, offer him the job now.
If I were a power-five conference athletic director who wants to shape an athletic department with a football decision to make, I would want to make that decision. If George is your guy, Illinois, get it done now so he can make the decision on the future of Illini football -- whether that's sticking with interim coach Bill Cubit (who has done an admirable job this year and likely is better than some possible outside candidates) or starting a nationwide search. George is an Illinois guy, he surely has paid attention to the football program from afar.
Illinois should act quickly. If leadership (the board of trustees, president Timothy Killeen and interim chancellor Barbara Wilson) does this by the book -- which it could -- it would open up a national search (which some think it still possible), which could be a month-long process. That kind of search usually would include hiring a search firm, which would vet candidates' backgrounds and basically provide an extra layer of legal protection and discretion.
But if you know who you want, the university shouldn't do a "by-the-book" search, as long as it follows normal university policy, including publicly posting the job for a week. As someone with athletic administration experience told me, this search could be over in 10-14 days "if motivated."
If Illinois doesn't hire an athletic director before the Northwestern game, maybe interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk makes the decision on Cubit. Minnesota interim athletic director Beth Goetz may have set a blueprint for how to make a decision as an interim AD at a lower-level Big Ten program when you have a solid interim head coach with a solid staff. Tracy Claeys received a three-year contract to keep Jerry Kill's staff in place to try and continue to build on the stable foundation built since 2011. Kowalczyk and Illinois could do worse than commit a few more years to Cubit and an incrementally improving Illini program. Would a three-year deal hurt recruiting? That's possible. But Minnesota's recruits don't seem fazed by it. Could Illinois do better than Cubit, who couldn't get over the hump as head coach at Western Michigan? If it picks the right guy, yes. But we also know that Illinois has done worse...much, much worse.
If Kowalczyk makes an outside hire, those in the coaching community think Illinois wouldn't have any trouble finding qualified candidates. Even with an interim athletic director, Illinois football is a desirable, high-paying Big Ten job for many intriguing candidates.
Ideally, though, a new athletic director is making that decision. If Illinois acts decisively and quickly, it could probably land the guy some think is an ideal candidate, a guy who today admitted Illinois was his "dream job."