Illinois fired Mike Thomas 17 days ago. Thomas was told of his dismissal three weeks ago. That means the decision-makers had been planning his dismissal for longer than that -- likely for weeks. But here we are 17 days following his dismissal, and Illinois does not have an athletic director. Heck, it has not yet formed a search committee nor commissioned a search firm. Illinois made its own bed by waiting so long to fire Thomas. There were rumblings it would happen a week or so after Tim Beckman's dismissal for medical misconduct and player abuse. More rumbles during the Illini's bye week (Oct. 16-18), but university leadership -- University of Illinois system president Timothy Killeen, interim chancellor Barbara Wilson and the UI board of trustees -- waited until the Nov. 9 release of the full independent investigation of the football abuses. Time wasted, and, again, time's a wastin'.
What's the hold up with the AD search? Multiple sources maintain that Illinois continues its pursuit for Colorado athletic director Rick George. Influential big donors have led the push and obviously have heard enough to continue the push, which sources say has the backing of Kileen and Wilson. At the same time, Illinois has a short list of other candidates but it's unclear whether the are actively pursuing them yet. If Illinois lands George, the patience pays off. If it doesn't -- which seems more likely -- it wasted a lot of time, which is of the essence given the imminent coaching decision.
Illinois must make a decision on Bill Cubit by Sunday, and interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk agreed with that sentiment on my radio show on Wednesday. Illinois football coaches have made an admirable effort on the recruiting trail since Tim Beckman's August dismissal. They've lost no commitments yet (at least not publicly) and have added four commitments, including yesterday's verbal pledge from Florida running back Devin Singletary. The coaches spent Tuesday night calling recruits to set up a big few weeks of official visits following the end of the season. They are recruiting and coaching like they will be here for the future even if they have no idea if their Illinois futures will extend beyond Saturday. That's all they can do. But they are uncertain because leadership above them is uncertain, including Kowalczyk, who must get approval from Wilson to make the decision, meaning that Kowalczyk likely isn't making the decision.
The potential two-year offer for Cubit reported by the Chicago Tribune has a lot of people in the business confused. In a vacuum, it makes some sense (stay with me here). It would allow Illinois more time to find the right athletic director -- which is priority No. 1. It would be low-cost for a program budget that has been hit by buyout, including Mike Thomas' $2.5 million buyout that is paid this year. And Cubit would keep continuity for a 2016 team that could be solid. But in the football world, where a program's long-term health relies on recruiting, this move could doom the Illinois program for the following two or three seasons or longer. Illinois already has a weak defensive depth chart in 2017 and a two-year deal likely would harm recruiting for both 2016 and 2017. Yes, Illinois can still get commitments. Cubit's staff added four commitments as an interim staff. Some recruits have little knowledge of a coach's contract situation. But many recruits' families do. This will be a hindrance to not only Cubit but the next head coach, who will take over a program that lacks depth. Illinois isn't a great Big Ten program now, but this may doom Illinois to slide back down to the very bottom of the conference. As one college football source texted me: "It just sets this program back. Makes it an uphill battle when it doesn't need to be." That's Illinois right now. And it's a shame. If you keep Cubit, to me, it's worth a few hundred thousand dollars more in a buyout to arm him with ammunition to recruit and help the long-term future of the program. Give him four years, $1.2 million annually with a $250,000 per year buyout. If a new AD wants to make a change after one season, the buyout is basically the same as Beckman's entering the 2015 season.
Understandably, a segment of Illinois fans wants better than Cubit, who became the Illinois offensive coordinator after getting fired at Western Michigan following a 36-27 MAC record over eight seasons in Kalamazoo. But can Kowalczyk and Illinois find better under these circumstances? Or can Illinois do better if a new athletic director doesn't start a search for a few more weeks? In that scenario, you could likely kiss goodbye some favorable candidates, like Bowling Green's Dino Babers, who likely wouldn't wait around for a job like Illinois. The Illini can shoot for the moon with an open coaching search but run the risk of running the program further off course -- and in the hole -- like it did when Thomas hired Beckman, who lasted as long as he did partly because of Cubit.
If Cubit is let go, whoever the next head coach is faces a bigger challenge than most Illini fans assume. 2016 will be a lost class. Many of the current 18 commits, especially the Florida prospects, will not stay on. Several in-state prospects will be . Illinois will be forced to try to pillage the MAC -- yes, some of their current commits have mostly MAC offers -- to scrap together a few players who can contribute, like Beckman did in 2012 when he landed Mason Monheim, T.J. Neal, Justin Hardee, Mike Svetina and V'Angelo Bentley. But Beckman's staff has left a thin cupboard on defense that will be exposed during the 2017 season. The new coaches recruits, especially defensive linemen, won't be ready to contribute during the first few seasons, much like the current Illini defensive linemen who were forced into action way too early. 2016 could be a solid year with the talent returning (though we thought the same about 2012 before the lack of trust in a new staff ruined those hopes), but the program likely will take a step back in 2017 and 2018 due to the defensive roster issues. Just prepare yourself and maybe have a little patience with the next guy -- even though I know Illini fans are tired of being asked for patience.
An interim athletic director can lead a football search and make a hire. Michigan and Penn State had searches with interim ADs and landed Jim Harbaugh and Bill O'Brien, respectively. Of course, Illinois not Michigan nor Penn State. Those programs sell themselves. Illinois is a tougher sell whether it has a long-term AD or an interim AD. But both coaches and athletic administrators have told me that the negative impact of an interim AD leading a coaching search is overblown. Plenty of coaches will still have interest in a Big Ten head coaching job, and I'm told coaches already have reached out to Illinois. It pays well. It's prestigious. Illinois is in a managable Big Ten West division. But the challenges of the program and the state of future rosters -- 2017 looks to be a huge challenge on defense and 2016 could be a lost recruiting class for a program that can't afford a lost recruiting class -- likely are bigger impediments than an interim athletic director. Illinois will have no issues finding a coach. But whether it will have the resources and sway to land the coach it wants remains to be seen.
This is the state of Illinois, so politics and power are always factors. Wilson said she believes in the old saying that "athletics can be the front porch for the university." I love that phrase, because it's true. Good athletics programs are the best marketing tool for a university. Illinois set admissions records following Illinois basketball's national runner-up finish in 2005. Athletics and academics should work in harmony. But given Illinois' history -- slush fund, NCAA violations, abuse scandals, etc. -- a certain segment of academia looks down on the athletic department. The DIA has an independent fund, while the university requires a state budget, which has not been set due to the ongoing disfunction from the Illinois politicians in Springfield. The university and DIA have paid a lot of money in legal fees and buyouts for administrators and an athletic director. Will the DIA have the power to offer the $5-6 million it may require to land a great coaching candidate and his staff?
As I wrote 17 days ago, uncertainy abounds due to uncertain leadership. Most in the athletic department are uncertain about what happens next. Hopefully, those making decision-makers above them have clear answers...and soon.