Werner's Whits: Illini missing on top targets - again?

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner weighs in on why the Illini athletics department struggles to land its top candidates for vacancies

So, Illinois missed out on its top athletics director candidate, Rick George, according to everyone's sources -- including my own. Illinois had to exhaust all possibilities with the former Illini football player, former PGA Tour executive, former Texas Rangers executive and current Colorado athletics director. But the pull of his alma mater wasn't enough to land George. Why? Well, Boulder -- where George worked under former CU coach Bill McCartney from 1989-1991 -- might not be the best place to live, but most think its close. His family loves it there. George just arrived there two and a half years ago and he's off to a great start in rebuilding the Colorado athletics program to Pac-12 standards (more in terms of fund-raising and facilities than wins so far). He's paid well, loves his job, loves his home, likes the people he works for and is comfortable.

Craig Tiley, considered by most media and fans as at least No. 2 on the wish list, appears doubtful at this point as well. Some donors and search committee members are drawn to the CEO of Tennis Australia and the former Illini tennis coach. For good reason, he's had great success with two rebuilds and runs a major sports organization and event (Australian Open). But a source tells me that Tiley has only received one phone call from Illinois' contracted search firm, Korn Ferry, and the call was basic (whether he had interest and updated personal information). Now, Tiley -- who reportedly makes about $1.3 million per year -- is the type of candidate who shouldn't need a formal interview. With his level of job, he doesn't want to interview. Tiley wants to be able to deny interest until he's hired because he likes his job.  He has a good job. He doesn't need Illinois. Heck, Illinois is lucky that he's even interested in Illinois. But it's unclear whether that interest has been reciprocated. Why wouldn't it? No good reason, in my opinion, unless they know TIley is uninterested. But sources say he would be interested. But can Illinois meet his demands (price, guarantees about the job, etc.)? What are Tiley's demands, if any? All this is unclear. But the seeming lack of contact this late in the process -- especially if they make a hire in the next few days -- is disappointing given Tiley's resumé and his connections at Illinois. But some believe with George out of the picture, Illinois would step up its efforts for Tiley. We'll see.

So, if Illinois missed on the public's perceived top two candidates, why does this keep happening? Former athletic director Mike Thomas infamously whiffed on his top candidates for the football job -- Illinois targeted Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora and Butch Jones -- in 2011, ultimately settling for Tim Beckman, who had the rockiest run of any Illini football coach. Meanwhile, Sumlin is 3-1 in bowl games (though he's had some struggles recently), Fedora just led UNC to an ACC Coastal Division title and Jones led Tennessee to a 9-4 season. Thomas then missed on Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens in his pursuit for a basketball coach, ultimately landing on John Groce, who is 27-38 during Big Ten play in his four seasons at Illinois and on the verge of missing his third straight tournament. Stevens is now coaching the Celtics, and Smart is now making big money and impressing in his first season at Texas.

Of course, landing a top candidate does not always guarantee success. Check out Matt Bollant's women's basketball program, which is now 18-49 during Big Ten play in his four seasons in Champaign. He lost five conference games in five years during an unbelievable run at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Illinois simply is a tough sell right now. Recent history shows it's hard to win in football. Basketball is 11 years removed from its last Big Ten title and extended tournament run (for context, Illini freshman D.J. Williams celebrated his eighth birthday during the Illini's Final Four run). The UI administration is in constant upheaval. Illinois will hire an athletics director before it hires the AD's boss, a new chancellor (will Illinois settle for a secondary candidate then too?). Donors are angry. The new AD must make quick decisions on the basketball and football coaches. The fan base is splintered and, some, apathetic. Facilities must be upgraded. Ticket sales for basketball are dropping, and while football ticket sales leveled off, the stadium remains half to two-thirds full. Simply, top candidates with multiple appealing options -- or good jobs already -- will think twice before jumping to Illinois. Most in the athletics administration business look at Illinois as a mess, and in some cases, a joke.

That said, Illinois still has plenty of possibilities. It's a Big Ten program with a huge, rabid, hungry fan base. While Illinois will struggle to close the deal with established ADs and coaches, up-and-comers surely are attracted to the step up to a traditional Big Ten program with a high ceiling. George and Tiley would create the most buzz. They would probably most please donors, which speeds up the process to Illinois reaching that ceiling. Established names like George and Tiley would help attract established staffers and established coaches. But missing out on them does not mean that Illinois is doomed. It just means the challenges -- which I wrote about earlier this week -- are even more difficult. 

Illinois just has to hire the right person to navigate the huge mountains ahead. The question is whether Illinois "leadership" is capable of doing so. Is longtime Illini guy Tom Michael the right person? The Eastern Illinois AD, former Illini basketball player and longtime DIA staffer is well-liked, especially in the academics area. But does he have the personality to move mountains and attract donors and coaches to Illinois? Washington University (St. Louis) athletic director Josh Whitman has all the personality traits Illini fans want. He's hyper-intelligent and charming. He'll likely win the press conference and has a chance to win over donors. But he's only run Division III athletics departments and doesn't have developed relationships in the power-five conferences, making him inherently risky. Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier checks a lot of the boxes for a step up to a position like Illinois. But one could argue that Mike Thomas was even more qualified, and Frazier will have many of the same challenges as Thomas -- maybe even more -- following Thomas' failed tenure.

The Illini faithful are leery of outsiders. But what's it say when Illinois is even struggling to land the top candidates with Illini ties?


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