Werner's Whits: Still looking for leadership

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner weighs in on latest news on the Illinois athletic director search

Illinois still needs leadership. Who knew? A Chicago Tribune report suggests the Illinois search committee's process has hit a few bumps. The story, built around annonymous sources, has some interesting details, including allegations that their is "ruffling feathers" due to an "atypical" search that allegedly includes reaching out to candidates through their university e-mail address. If true, these are obvious concerns. If true, it proves that Illinois still lacks a vision or streamlined plan. If true, Illinois may miss out on the potential program-changing athletic director it needs.

The biggest concern may be that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees members are "considering an independent search," according to the Tribune report. Who's running the show? Who's the decision-maker? The university president, Timothy Killeen, is from Wales and knows more about rugby than American football. The interim chancellor, Barbara Wilson, at least admits she doesn't know much about sports and has reached out to people who know plenty about sports. But she and the university leadership still have no sense of urgency in its search for an athletic director and continue to stick to their by-the-book processes that threaten to drag on a search that should've concluded -- if they had acted quickly on Mike Thomas' dismissal and had a clear plan in place -- a month ago. But "the plan" seems more like a by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach. According to a source, the university is still considering hiring of a search firm. But the application window already started and the search committee is already reaching out to candidates! Dysfunction junction, what is your function?

The university chose not to use Parker Executive Search firm after Parker aided in the Illini's last athletic director and football coach searches. Those resulted in Mike Thomas and Tim Beckman, respectively. Both were fired this fall. Illinois thought hiring Parker again would be bad P.R. But a search firm's job is to vet candidates, confidentially contact candidates and set up meetings. The search firm does not make the hire. Illinois chose Thomas, who chose Beckman. With so few with A.D. experience, Illinois could've used some search firm expertise -- more so now than in the past.

Many of the candidates listed in the Tribune's report aren't a surprise. After Thomas' dismissal, the university appears to prioritize someone with Illini ties, and Colorado AD Rick George, Eastern Illinois AD Tom Michael, Washington University AD Josh Whitman and Tennis Australia CEO and former Illini tennis coach Craig Tiley all fit the bill. NIU AD Sean Frazier, who has been vetted according to the report, was key in running Wisconsin's athletic department under Barry Alvarez. He's a great candidate but the dysfunction at Illinois might dissuade someone like Frazier, who will have other great opportunities in the future. According to a source, the university wants to hire an established power-five conference athletic director. But can it lure one to the current chaos? Some on the committee also seem intent on hiring someone who will stay at Illinois long-term. Hire the best candidate who has achieved the most. Period.

Meanwhile, the university leadership's decision to opt for "stability" is predictably backfiring. The day the university agreed to a two-year contract with interim coach Bill Cubit, I wrote why it was the worst of all available options. We're already starting to see why. With just a two-year deal, Illinois recruiting is already suffering. Illinois seemed to believe that Cubit -- with his two-year, well, really one-year deal -- could keep together his recruiting class. On Monday, one of their best commitments, East St. Louis offensive lineman Tre'Vour Simms, flipped to Mizzou. He won't be the last. Syracuse coach Dino Babers -- who likely would have been interested in Illinois, even if an interim athletic director was leading the search -- is persuading Illini commitments Kentrail Moran and Joshua Black to reconsider their pledges to the in-state school. They won't be the only ones. Listen to recruiting reporter Ryan Easterling's podcast on the subject.

Illinois is willing to allow an inexperienced interim chancellor to lead a search for an athletic director. But it did not feel comfortable allowing an experienced interim athletic director, Paul Kowalczyk, lead a coaching search. And, yes, plenty of qualified candidates would have been interested in the Illini job.

Illinois should be a destination university, and it should have a great athletic program. But right now, Illinois leadership succeeds best at getting in its own way. Illinois athletics has problems. Attendance declines. Facilities need upgrading. But the problems start at the top -- of the university. Leadership -- leadership that understands how a great athletic program positively impacts a university -- is sorely needed. Hopefully, a new athletic director and/or a new chancellor can sway the president, board of trustees and faculty -- or whoever is in charge -- to make the changes necessary to lift the program from its current continual slide.


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