King for a Day

by Matthew Stollak on Monday, March 26, 2012

The University of Illinois Men's Basketball program has a long, storied, and successful history with 17 Big Ten championships and 5 trips to the NCAA Final Four, and one national championship (in 1915, though).  Unfortunately, U of I basketball has fallen on some hard times.  Having not advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2005, and not qualifying for the NCAA tournament after a sterling 15-3 start, head coach Bruce Weber was unceremoniously fired at the end of the season.

Among college basketball jobs, finding a replacement should have been a "slam dunk."  Why?
  • Low competition statewide - Illinois is perceived as the best program in the state
  • Access to talent/recruiting base - the Chicago area is considered fertile recruiting ground, producing such stars as Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, Mark Aguirre, Tim Hardaway, Dwayne Wade, and Derrick Rose.  Current high school players such as Jabari Parker and Cliff Alexander are considered top 10  in the nation
  • Tradition and history of success - as noted above, the Illini have had great success to sell applicants
  • Fan Support - even being 2 hours away from Chicago, Assembly Hall is almost always sold out with fans decked out in orange.
  • Conference Affiliation - Given the Illini are part of the Big 10, any coach will be well-compensated and get plenty of face time on the Big Ten Network, which can promote future recruiting.
No less than Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports college basketball expert, has declared the Illinois job "one of the top 10 college basketball jobs in America."

If the job is so wonderful, shouldn't applicants from "lesser" programs be knocking down the door?   Further, there is only one other "top notch" job out there competing for candidates - Mississippi State. Yet, at least 5 candidates have already turned down the offer or resisted possible overtures:
  • Shaka Smart, who led VCU to the Final Four in 2011, was reportedly guaranteed facility improvements, a long-term contract for as high as 8 years, and a salary comparable to Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who makes more than $3 million a year (Smart makes $1.285 million at VCU)
  • Brad Stevens, who led Butler University to consecutive National Championship games in 2010 and 201, turned down a reported 8 year, $21 million salary to remain at his current place of employment
  • Anthony Grant of Alabama has expressed no interest
  • Leonard Hamilton at Florida State is comfortable in his current position
  • Washington's Lorenzo Romar is also staying in his job.
 So, why the resistance?  Among the more public reasons:
  • Outdated facilities - Assemby Hall is 49 years old.  Even with major renovations, Illinois remains behind in the "arms race," with competitors such as Michigan State and Ohio State.
  • Champaign is not Chicago - enough said
  • A major administration shake-up - The Athletic Director, President, and head coach all lost their jobs within 116 days of one another.  That kind of turmoil can make it difficult to attract top notch candidates
Here's the problem for Illinois...when these things hang around and the perception is that you're turned down by guy after guy (or that they "have no interest" in your job), you do damage to the way your program is viewed.  They're theoretically the prettiest girl at the prom and nobody seems to want to get out on the dance floor with them.

Sometimes the position is not as good as you think it is.

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