Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman inherited an athletics program in turmoil -- at least at the top.
The department's cash cow (football) was disgraced on and off the field by his dismissed predecessor's clumsy hire.
The program's pride and joy (men's basketball) has only caused sorrow and anger as its missed three straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time in three decades.
A program that rarely receives a lot of attention (women's basketball) received too much attention following an investigation that -- though proved allegations of racism and abuse were unfounded -- has further derailed the career of a coach who once looked like a home run hire.
Whitman started taking the scalpel to the high-profile programs by acting quickly on football with the dismissals of Bill Cubit (who took over for dismissed Tim Beckman) and hiring of Lovie Smith. Men's basketball coach John Groce and women's basketball coach Matt Bollant seemingly enter make-or-break years, though Groce's arsenal to "make" it is a heck of a lot better than Bollant's, especially following the transfer of All-Big Ten performer Chatrice White.
Still, Whitman inherited a program with some great coaches in the non-revenue sports.
I've listed the Illinois coaches in an annual rankings since 2012, previously at OrangeandBlueNews.com. My first rankings here at IlliniInquirer.com has a familiar feel at the top. Hopefully, the money-making sports soon crash the top-five of these rankings (Groce and Bollant don't crack the top-10 this year).
1. Mike Small, men's golf
This is Small's fourth straight year as the No. 1 coach, and it really hasn't been all that close. That's not a knock on the other Illini coaches. It's just that Small is on the very short list of best coaches in Illinois athletics history. Really, former tennis coach Craig Tiley -- who led Illinois tennis to a rise that led to a 2003 national championship -- is the only guy with an argument on Small. Like Tiley, Small has lifted a warm-weather sport at Illinois, a northern school, into one of the premier programs in the country with some of the premier facilities in the country. This season, Small led the Illini to a school-record nine tournament wins, including a fourth straight NCAA Regional title and eighth Big Ten title in nine years. The Illini also made match play (final eight) at the NCAA Championships for the fifth time in six years and finished third overall, their fourth-straight top-five finish. Small has recruited, developed and produced several Big Ten Players of the Year and individual Big Ten and NCAA champions. Several have turned into pros, including Luke Guthrie, Scott Langley, Thomas Pieters, Brian Campbell and now Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry. He's also now recruiting top prospects, including rising juniors Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer and incoming top-20 freshmen Bryan Bumgarten and Michael Feagles. Though that national championship trophy remains elusive, it still seems a matter of when and not if Small will bring that hardware to Illinois.
2. Kevin Hambly, women's volleyball
When a 21-13 overall record and a sixth Sweet Sixteen appearance in seven years is a bit of a disappointment (Illinois fell to No. 2 overall seed Minnesota), you know your program is rolling. Hambly is now 161-72 overall at Illinois with six trips to the NCAA Tournament. Hambly must replace one of the best players in Illini volleyball history, Jocelynn Birks, but he continues to bring in top talent, including the No. 22 ranked 2016 recruiting class. Hambly's program hasn't quite become a national powerhouse following its 2011 runner-up finish, but it's one of the best teams in arguably the nation's best conference.
3. Justin Spring, men's gymnastics
A year after injuries caused his team to fail to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2002, Spring – the only coach on this list with a national championship – bounced back in 2016 with his team finishing in fourth place at the NCAA Championships. With 17-year-old sophomore Brandon Ngai winning the pommel horse, Spring has seen a member of his team win an individual NCAA championship in six straight seasons. With Ngai, 2015 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year Bobby Baker, rising sophomore Alex Diab and rising junior Chandler Eggleston, Illinois should again be one of the best programs in the country in 2016. The thing that slightly hurts Spring in these rankings is he competes against just 15 other Division I men's gymnastics programs, but the former Illini great and Olympian still is among the best in his business.
4. Brad Dancer, men's tennis
Taking over for an NCAA championship-winning coach (Tiley) is a tough task, but Dancer continues to show he's plenty capable of leading Illinois to success. A year after ending Ohio State's reign as Big Ten champion, the Illini fell to the Buckeyes in the 2016 Big Ten championship. For the second straight year, the Illini's NCAA Tournament run ended sooner than they imagined, losing at home in the Round of 32 to Mississippi State. But Dancer consistently has the Illini competing near the top of the Big Ten and for Sweet Sixteen berths. Dancer must replace one of the best players he has recruited in Jared Hiltzik, but rising junior Aleks Vukic, who advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals, has developed into a no-doubt No. 1 starter and one of the best in collegiate tennis (ranked No. 6 in the country). Hiltzik's younger brother, Aron, finished the season ranked No. 75 and has a high ceiling. Dancer also welcomes the No. 3 recruit in the country, Zeke Clark of Oklahoma, and two other top-64 recruits, Gui Gomes of California and Kris Ortega of Illinois.
5. Dan Hartleb, baseball
We all knew Illini baseball would experience growing pains during a rebuilding year. Following a record-setting 2015, Illinois lost most of its pitching staff and most of the pop from its lineup. It showed as the Illini finished 2016 with a 28-23 record. A 12-12 conference record wasn't enough to make the Big Ten Tournament. Their biggest bugaboo? Illinois went 0-9 in their first nine one-run games and finished the season 4-10 in one-run games. Still, the success of 2015 has helped the Illini up the talent in recent recruiting classes. Hartleb has found his groove behind pitching coach Drew Dickinson's strong staff -- which has produced back-to-back first-round draft picks (Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock). The Illini will look to take a big step next year with a more mature team. Replacing Sedlock won't be easy, but former walk-on lefty Doug Hayes has developed into a really good pitcher and freshman Luke Schilling has high-round talent. The next step for Hartleb's program? Financial investment. If Illinois really wants to be one of the Big Ten's best in the long-term, Illinois Field needs a makeover. Hartleb has the $15 million plan, but he hasn't yet pressed Whitman, who has had bigger priorities early in his tenure, on the issue.
6. Lovie Smith, football
Some may argue that Lovie Smith should be higher on this list because of the potentially huge impact he could make on the athletics department. Others will argue that he should be lower because he hasn't coached a game yet at Illinois. I struggled with where to put Smith, but this seems like a solid spot for now. Lovie gives the department's most important program instant credibility and notoriety. Smith makes Illinois Illinois football an instantly intriguing national story. Can Smith -- one of two coaches to lead the state's NFL team to a Super Bowl appearance -- lead Illinois to sustained success? He's certainly rejuvenated the fan base with Illinois selling more than 2,000 new season tickets in the 48 hours after his hire. It's early, but Lovie also has brought some buzz back to in-state recruiting as well. In just three months, Lovie has brought optimism to Illinois football's long-term future. That alone is worth this spot on the list.
7. Jim Heffernan, wrestling
Illinois wrestling isn't Iowa or Penn State, but the Illini have recruited and produced four NCAA individual championships during the last five years with back-to-back champions Jesse Delgado (2012-013) and Isaiah Martinez (2015-16). The Illini finished tied for ninth at this year's NCAA Championships. Heffernan and assistants Mark Perry and Jeremy Hunter continue to recruit and develop special talent. Martinez has lost just one match the past two years and is one of the most dominant and entertaining athletes in his sport. With two years left, Martinez has the chance to become the first Illini to win three NCAA championships -- and become one of the most decorated Illini athletes ever, in any sport. With All-American Zane Richards and fellow senior Zac Brunson returning, the Illini have the chance to improve their already solid Big Ten and national standing next year.
8. Mike Turk, men's track and field
A year after winning the Big Ten outdoor title and finishing second at the Indoor Championships, the Illini finished 11th and 10th at the outdoor and indoor championships, respectively, this year. So the resurgence of the men's track program under Turk -- the most under-covered story in the athletic department recently -- took a bit of a step back. But Turk is probably allowed a down year after what he's accomplished. In 2009, Illinois finished seventh and ninth at the Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor Championships, respectively, in head coach Wayne Angel's final season. In his fifth season as head coach, Turk led the Illini to a second-place finish at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, a Big Ten Outdoor Championships title (the program's first since 1994) and 10th place at the NCAA Outdoor Championships (the program's first top-10 finish since 1988). Turk has revived Illinois from one of the worst track programs in the Big Ten to one of the more respectable programs in the conference.
9. Tyra Perry, softball
Talk about a debut. Perry took over a stagnant softball program from the program's creator, Terri Sullivan, and made an immediate impact. In her first season, Perry led the Illini to a 36-23 record (the fifth-most wins in program history) and their first NCAA Regional appearance since 2010 and fifth overall trip to the NCAA Tournament. The most impressive aspect of Perry's season may have been that she kept her team focused despite some off-the-field distractions. Now, we'll see if Perry can sustain that success and replace some talented outgoing players -- including Allie Bauch and Kylie Johnson -- with her own recruits. Another new coach who earned consideration was women's tennis coach Evan Clark. As interim coach last season, Clark led the Illini to their best season since 2012, which included a 15-9 record (8-3 Big Ten) and conference tournament semifinal berth.
10. Janet Rayfield, soccer
Rayfield has led the Illini to 10 NCAA Tournaments in 13 seasons but has missed the last two. The 2015 team was done in by three ties during conference play. Now, Rayfield loses star scorer Jannelle Flaws -- the program's all-time leading goal scorer -- and must develop the next stars to lead Illinois back to the tournament. Still, what Rayfield has accomplished is more impressive than any other coach still on the board. Women's gymnatics coach Kim Landrus has a case for this spot too.