Illinois is on the last legs of its athletic director search. Early February has been an end goal for at least a month. And according to a report from the Chicago Tribune's Shannon Ryan, the Illini have interviewed seven candidates this week and will interview them again on Wednesday. Ryan has been all over the athletic director search, and her report confirms a lot of the buzz I have reported here at Illini Inquirer. But a hire is close. Here are a few of my thoughts as we get closer.
The Illini are "still pitching" to Colorado athletic director and former Illini football player Rick George, Ryan reports. I heard as late as Tuesday that Illinois had been in recent contact with. What's that tell us? Hard to say. George has been the No. 1 candidate since Mike Thomas was dismissed in early November. Yet, he isn't in Champaign. George -- who would be a splash, please the donors and bring in money -- obviously is drawn to Illinois, his alma mater. He's told those close to him that he is not interested in Illinois. But would he tell them if he were? He has a great gig at Colorado. He and his family love it in Boulder (who wouldn't?). George made it clear that he didn't want to interview -- for fear his name would leak out (good fear) and anger those at Colorado University. So why is his name still attached in reports like this? Those at Illinois think he's still in play. Either George has shown Illinois enough interest for Illinois to continue its pursuit or Illinois is living in a delusional dream.
Craig Tiley reportedly interviewed for the job -- in Indianapolis. The former Illini tennis coach and Tennis Australia CEO wouldn't make the trip around the world if he weren't highly interested in the job. Tiley had said during his tennis tenure at Illinois that UI athletic director was his dream job. The South African is married to a Naperville woman and has young children. He just wrapped up running the Australian Open. He seems ready to make the move. Illinois seemingly postponed its interviews for Tiley (they could've interviewed all the other candidates in early- to mid-January). That triggers lights and sirens in my head. There appears to be great mutual interest. It appears Tiley is the top target interviewed. So, unless he botches the interview or Illinois botches the negotiation phase, Tiley seems like the odds-on favorite.
There are plenty of other familiar names on the list Ryan provides. Washington University (St. Louis) athletic director Josh Whitman and Eastern Illinois athletic director Tom Michael are no-doubt interview candidates. Both are former Illini -- Michael, a basketball player, and Whitman, a football player -- and spent time in the Illinois athletic department.
Whitman is young and has no AD experience beyond D-III, but the highly intelligent Illinois grad is considered a "rising star" and manages a big budget for a D-III program. It'd be a risky hire, but could the risk pay off?
Micheal is well-liked and well-respected, but he doesn't have a lot of experience as a D-I athletic director. Some also question whether he has the forceful personality needed to shake up the Illini athletic department, and possibly the administration. But word is that Michael has done well during this process. Michael has almost become underrated in this process. He knows Illinois as well as any candidate. He knows what worked under Ron Guenther and what did not work under Thomas and Guenther. But Illinois could've hired him on Nov. 10. But they have their expensive and timely processes.
Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, who has interviewed for many power-five AD jobs, makes sense as an "outsider" candidate. He knows the Big Ten well after serving as deputy athletic director under Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and has done well at Northern Illinois, improving facilities and trying to forward NIU as a rising power in the Midwest. None of the three are perfect candidates, but they are logical ones if the Illini miss on their top targets. Though if they land on one of these targets -- and not George nor Tiley -- what a waste of time and resources.
The three remaining targets make no sense beyond filling out the list, possibly with a few diversity candidates. Florida Atlantic athletic director Patrick Chun has overseen a football program that has gone 15-32 in his four years and a basketball program that has gone 15-36 the past two years under his hire, Michael Curry. Central Michigan athletic director Dave Heeke has had more success at Central Michigan, at least in football. He hired Butch Jones to replace Brian Kelly -- a success -- and had decent success under Dan Enos, who resigned to take the offensive coordinator position at Arkansas, before hiring John Bonamego, who led the Chippewas to their second straight bowl in 2015. The interview that makes little sense outside of diversity is Maryland deputy athletic director Kelly Mehrtens, who resigned as UNC-Wilmington athletic director in 2010 amid a player mistreatment scandal. Mehrtens -- who received her master's degree from Illinois and served for a few years as associate AD at Illinois -- was not implicated, but interviewing someone with ties to that type of negativity is not smart for a program that just fired its football coach -- and consquently, its athletic director -- for player abuse. If Illinois hires any of these candidates, then the Illinois administration is completely out of touch and has no clue of what its program needs.
Whenever these stories leak, you have to ask who would do it and what would be their motivation? Whenever the University of Illinois is involved, there are so many agendas at work: boosters, administration, faculty, board of trustees, etc. Very few would have access to this information, and such specific information. While the list is intriguging for outsiders, this leak is not a positive for Illinois. Athletics administrators, coaches and even university administrators take notice. It's unprofessional to leak prospective job candidates. It may cause strife with those candidates' current employers, especially for candidates who do not get the job. Illinois must hire a chancellor in the next year. It likely will hire a football coach. It may hire a basketball coach. Illinois already is seen as a trainwreck right now -- athletics and academic scandals, struggling basketball and football programs and a game of musical chairs in university leadership -- and today's leak won't help that perception inside the athletics and acadmic communities.