It’s been five days since John Groce was let go, and the rumor mill is churning away on the Illini coaching search. It’s unlikely we’ll hear anything official until late Monday/Tuesday at the earliest, as that is when the job posting expires. Further complicating the timeline is the likelihood that Illinois’ next coach is currently leading his team in the NCAA tournament. The new guy will probably want to see his current team through the postseason before publicly accepting a new position. That doesn’t mean that word might not get out, but I wouldn’t expect it to be confirmed.
We can gain a little insight into the Illini search based on what other teams are doing. For example, Missouri hired Cuonzo Martin yesterday, who resigned at Cal a day earlier. Martin’s name has been bandied about in Illini coaching discussions, primarily because he’s a Big Ten guy (played at Purdue) and grew up in East St. Louis. Martin has deep regional ties and reportedly was very interested in the Illinois job should it come open. Opinions were divided on whether Martin was the guy for the Illini. Stops at Missouri State, Tennessee, and Cal showed him to be an ace recruiter with questionable – or at least unproven – Xs and Os skills. Sound familiar-ish? He’s made two NCAA appearances in nine seasons, and his Cal Bears laid an egg in their first round NIT exit this week. Martin was likely on Josh Whitman’s radar, but may not have been his first choice.
A report yesterday suggested Martin turned down an Illini offer of $18 million to accept Mizzou’s 7-year $21 million deal. More information along these lines stated that Mizzou was further along in the process and Illinois couldn’t catch up. The rumors the last couple of months, as John Groce’s seat got hotter, indicated Martin really wanted the Illinois job. One way to read the situation is to say that Missouri was further along in their search and ready to offer Martin a contract whereas Josh Whitman is still sending out feelers to coaching candidates to get a sense of the market for Illinois. Part of that process may be floating numbers to get a feel for what it might take to lure a particular candidate. Part of that process may be discussing the retention of key assistant coach and interim head coach Jamall Walker. It’s possible Whitman did inquire about Martin’s interest and part of that conversation was about salary. Just my completely biased opinion, but I’d be surprised if Cuonzo Martin was Illinois’ first choice and they weren’t able/willing to do what it took to land him. The Illinois program is in much better shape than Mizzou right now, and the Big Ten is a great conference with personal ties for Martin. Further, Illinois is reportedly willing to go to $4 million plus per year for the right guy. I think Martin got the sense he wasn’t at the top of the Illini list and jumped at a good opportunity in Missouri rather than wait for the Illini search to run its course and lose out.
Cuonzo Martin will be a beast on the recruiting trail and probably a thorn in Illinois’ side as Missouri and Illinois compete with Travis Ford at SLU for the best players in St. Louis. Speaking of recruiting, with Martin at Mizzou, it may be even more critical that Illinois retain Jamall Walker and his personal ties to the current Illini recruits, especially Jeremiah Tilmon, and potential Illini Mark Smith. Walker has done an admirable job in a tough situation in taking over for Groce, and he appears to be increasing his value to the Illini program every day. Will Whitman make keeping Walker on staff a requirement for the new coach? It’s rare, but certainly not unheard of. Rumors persist that Wayne McClain was part of the package deal for the new Illini coach after Bill Self left and that that stipulation may have dissuaded some coaches from coming to Illinois. I doubt it had anything to do with Coach McClain personally or professionally; it’s just that most head coaches like to do things their way and have assistants who have been with them for years. It’s crucial that the coaching staff works well together, and it’s understandable that, in such a high-pressure job, coaches want to pick their staffs. Walker’s situation is definitely one to watch; much as Wayne McClain played a key role in keeping sophomores Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine committed to the Illini program, Walker may be needed to ease the transition for Illinois’ top-ten recruiting class.
The coaching search is more fun this time around than it was five years ago, and that has everything to do with the confidence inspired by Josh Whitman. In just over a year, he’s shown himself to be a guy who thinks big and is able to sell his We Will Win vision to both donors and quality coaches. As an alum and an ex-football player, he’s passionate about Illinois and can speak from experience as a Division I athlete in a revenue sport. He’s also a lawyer and seems comfortable with the legal aspects of contract negotiations. Significantly, Whitman also appears to be a good, perhaps great, leader. The way he’s handled difficult decisions, like firing his good friend John Groce, with both compassion and firmness of purpose has been admirable. To me, he’s a guy most coaches would love to work for; let’s hope some good ones feel the same way.