Illinois will hire a new athletic director in short order, almost assuredly in the next week or two, possibly in the next few days ... or maybe even hours of you reading this.
Whoever the hire will be, he or she will be taking a job fraught with challenges. After all, the Illinois situation currently is "not ideal," as interim athletics director Paul Kowalczyk so accurately called it in late November. The athletics department has been in turmoil ever since abuse scandals rocked multiple programs last spring.
The football coach, Bill Cubit, is basically on his second season with an "interim" title. The basketball coach, John Groce, is about to miss his third straight NCAA Tournament, something that hasn't happened at Illinois in three and a half decades.
Attendance has suffered, and, likewise, so has revenue and the budget. Oh, and the university still lacks a long-term chancellor following the surprise resignation of Phyllis Wise last August. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has gone without a leader since November and may need to hire its best leader in decades to climb out of its current mess.
Here are just some of the challenges the next athletics director faces.
The basketball decision
Illinois basketball is down in the dumps, near the bottom of the Big Ten -- only near due to revolting Rutgers and moribund Minnesota. Fourth-year head coach John Groce is 27-38 in the Big Ten and 16-17 at home during conference play. Groce has lost a sizable chunk of the fan base due to an embarrassing end to the 2014-15 season and lackluster and sometimes uninspired play this season (the Illini are 11-13, 3-8 Big Ten). This will force the next Illini athletic director to make a huge decision (or indecision) within his first month on the job. But it's a complicated decision as injuries have absolutely ravaged his roster this season, with all but three players missing at least a game this season or significant time during the offseason due to injuries. Star junior Kendrick Nunn missed the first five games of the season due to a thumb injury, and point guard Jaylon Tate missed four games with a finger dislocation. The team's two best post players and rebounders, Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr., have played a combined 16 Big Ten minutes (all Thorne).
Though some fans are firmly in the "Fire Groce" camp and not budging, this is not an easy decision for the next athletic director. Groce is one of the most snake-bitten coaches in the country when it comes to injuries. Few teams could withstand that quantity and severity of injuries (and to some of their top players) and still make the NCAA Tournament. Most athletics people, including coaches, sympathize with Groce. But Groce's roster problems aren't solely due to injuries. He recruited a roster with too many gaping holes, especially at point guard and on the glass, to withstand such misfortune. His team has shown poor fundamentals on both offense and defense, and even Groce has criticized his players' toughness. If you're going to lose, at least look competetive. Illinois is losing its conference games by an average of 7.2 points per game -- ahead of only Rutgers, Minnesota and Penn State -- and is allowing a Big Ten-worst 78.5 points per game.
Yet, Groce has a talented, experienced roster returning next year -- Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are seniors; Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke, along with D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan may make for one of the best collection of sophomores in the Big Ten; transfer Kipper Nichols will add much-needed length, strength and athleticism to the front court; and point guard is upgraded with the return of Tracy Abrams and addition of Milwaukee recruit Te'Jon Lucas. Plus, Groce has three years left on his current contract, meaning his buyout exceeds seven figures. Also, the athletic director will come to Illinois knowing he probably must make a football hire after the 2016 season.
For all these reasons, the next athletic director likely would lean on the side of bringing back Groce and giving him the chance for a make-or-break 2016-17 season, which coincides with a make-or-break 2017 recruiting class. But Groce's team can't embarrass any further this season. They must be competitive and must win some games -- Saturday's trip to Northwestern would be a good start -- to gain some momentum for a huge recruiting spring and summer.
The administration's decision to give interim football coach Bill Cubit a two-year deal was derided here. The Illini basically punted a season and may have set back the program multiple seasons. The 2017 and 2018 rosters, especially on defense, are weak. But Cubit's staff did an admirable job with the Class of 2016, finishing with a top-60 class nationally. It probably should've been a lot worse. The next athletic director likely will leave Cubit's contract, which pays him $1.2 annually and gives him a $250,000 buyout, as is. The contract basically gives the next AD free reign to spend the next nine months searching for his next football coach.
But the next AD should consider giving Cubit a two-year contract extension. Why? For one, it'd at least give Cubit some ammo against negative recruiting. Sure, some will see through it, but at least he'd have at least some administrative support to sell. And a good start to a recruiting class only helps Illinois, regardless of whether Cubit ultimately coaches the players. The extension also would give Cubit a small buyout for the next few seasons, a small price for Illinois but also could be a huge bargain for Illinois in the case that Cubit actually overcomes the mountain of a challenge in 2016 and succeeds.
Yes, Memorial Stadium received big renovations to the West Side, the press box, the student section, a new scoreboard and to a phenomenal new tailgating area to the west of the stadium called Grange Grove. But stepping into the Illini football offices is like stepping back to the '80s, maybe the '70s. Power-five athletics is an arms race, and right now, Illinois football is lacking the state-of-the-art facility of many of its Big Ten competitors. Former Illini AD Mike Thomas already had plans of a new four-story football complex behind the south end zone of Memorial Stadium, in what is now called "The Horseshoe." The facility would include new football offices and meeting rooms, a football weight room, recruiting lounge, dining facility and an Illini Football Hall of Fame that could open up to the street Kirby Avenue.
The Illini also have had preliminary talks of a new basketball practice facility attached to the north side of the renovated State Farm Center.
And Illinois baseball also is need of a complete stadium overhaul, at least if Illinois truly wants to be one of the Big Ten's elite. Thomas seemed intent on that, doubling baseball coach Dan Hartleb's salary following a 50-win season and the program's first NCAA Regional title. Hartleb has plans for an almost complete stadium renovation that would cost about $15 million.
In all, these projects combined could top nine figures. But they are necessary projects if Illinois truly wants to compete with the Big Ten's best. The next AD's fund-raising abilities will be challenged early.
Illinois renovated State Farm Center and Memorial Stadium partly to build suites, which are huge moneymakers at winning programs. But Illinois isn't winning, so the suites aren't selling. Loge seating -- some of the best seats at State Farm Center -- remain mostly half empty at Illinois basketball games. The easiest way to sell the suites and luxury seating? Employ coaches who win games.
I haven't written about this issue as much as some of my peers. Illinois has really high academic standards, higher than many of its Big Ten peers. This is a challenge for the Illini coaches, but not one that keeps Illinois from being successful -- at least in my opinion, because Stanford, Northwestern and Duke compete with high academic standards. But the university should allow Illinois to admit a few exceptions per year. That way, Illinois can compete for the same talent as most of its peers. If the athletic department doesn't do a satisfactory job of developing these students, they can penalize the department -- or given sports -- of those exceptions.
Word was that Thomas was close to swaying Wise to going more lenient on academic standards before her resignation. The next athletic director doesn't know who the next chancellor is. Will admissions have been a factor in their negotiations to take the job? Will the next chancellor have the same views as the AD on this issue?
The next AD inherits a campus in some chaos, an athletic department full of nervous employees wanting a leader but wary of the next one, and a fractured fan base. There are many agendas he must deal with: the administration, the faculty, donors, the board of trustees, longtime DIA employees, coaches, etc. The next athletic director must build consensus. Illinois athletics needs a leader who gets everyone on the same page. What are the your goals for the Illini? How will you navigated the 21st century challenges to lead them there? Also, the next AD must let everyone know it'll take time, hard work, patience, teamwork and some uncomfortable changes to lead Illinois to a rebirth. The opening press conference will set the tone, but the following months must be spent building that consensus, something Illinois needs to heal and move forward.