Saturday's news that Illinois had fired basketball coach John Groce after five seasons didn't come as a surprise to those around the college coaching world. Speculation runs rampant when a premier job looks like it could change coaches and the Illinois job was no exception.
Before I talk about potential candidates, I must address the ridiculous notion that some observers have that the Illinois job isn't a highly-coveted position in the coaching world. Talk to coaches around the game and most if not all will tell you that the list of advantages that the Illinois job has is lengthy.
First, the job is the premier basketball coaching position in a state that is perhaps the best in terms of prep basketball talent. The state of Illinois produces more high level high school talent than most any other state in the country. Second, the Big Ten Conference is among the best leagues in the college game year after year.
Add in the newly renovated State Farm Center where the Illini play their home games, an elite basketball practice facility and a rabid fan base and the job is far more attractive to the people in the know in the business than fans may give it credit for being.
The negatives that will come into play include the Champaign-Urbana area which ranks low against the rest of the Big Ten cities. The difficulty in recruiting the Chicago Public League will be a factor that may dissuade some candidates from taking the job but it is not as crucial to the success of the program as some believe.
So how will this process play out behind the scenes? First, I have confirmed that Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman spoke with search firms about potentially utilizing their services but decided late in the season against using one. Why did he decide against using a search firm? Perhaps because he thought he would be able to land Monty Williams, who was his top choice. The fact that the Illini were trying to seal a deal with someone that they wanted to be their next coach while they still had a head coach during the season has raised eyebrows around college basketball as rumors about Williams and Illinois have been bubbling for over a month.
That notwithstanding, Whitman has the ear of Illinois alum and longtime NBA executive Jerry Colangelo who was probably the go between during discussions with Williams who reportedly has no interest in taking the job.
Why wouldn't Williams want the job with the Illini reportedly prepared to pay him a huge salary that would be among the best in college basketball? First, the NBA lifestyle is far more conducive to family life than the position of head basketball coach at a Power Five conference school. In fact, multiple coaches that I spoke with told me that after coaching at both levels they could not see themselves ever going back to the college game if they had a job in the NBA.
Why you ask? Well, one current NBA coach told me that when he went on vacation last summer with his family, his wife's comment to him after 10 days away was "your cell phone has never rung. When we were in college basketball your phone rang 10 times a day."
A college coach is as busy in the off season as he is during the basketball season. Recruiting is a 365 day a year job whether you are scouting players, making phone calls, writing letters or any of the other avenues of contact that are a part of the recruiting process. Add in all the academic responsibilities that are a part of keeping players eligible for competition, staff responsibilities, booster and alumni commitments and media responsibilities and a college coach literally never has any down time.
An NBA coach is off as soon as their season ends and with rare exception they have the entire summer off. From the end of the season until an NBA team starts training camp they have very little responsibility in the office. Coaches love that time to recharge for the grueling season ahead.
One head coach said to me when we spoke today, "I enjoyed coaching in college but coaching in the NBA is about basketball. That's it. We don't have to ever go to the office. We coach our team and that's all we do. Plus, we get paid handsomely. Pretty tough to top that."
Sources have confirmed to me that with Colangelo's involvement, Illinois and Whitman were all in on landing Monty Williams. In fact, they had targeted Williams over a month ago and thought he would accept the job. However, Williams lost his wife in a tragic car accident just over a year ago and he is raising his five children as a single father. That challenge is far more conducive in the NBA than on the 24/7 – 365 merry go round that is college basketball.
After working as a consultant on multiple searches for several different universities let me paint a picture of how the process of hiring a new coach goes. First, after electing to not use a search firm, AD Josh Whitman has to have a go between that he can use to approach potential candidates. A current coach that is under contract cannot discuss employment with another university without violating his deal. Should he discuss a job without prior permission from his school he could be fired for cause which would void his contract.
With Colangelo's involvement the Illini should be able to get to most any candidate on their list. However, the candidates on Illinois list are not going interview for the job. They will only meet with Illinois if they are serious about accepting the position. The process goes like this:
School and athletic director compile a list of candidates and they rank them in order. They then use a go between or a search firm to approach their top candidate. That probably was Colangelo approaching Monty Williams. After he said no the school regroups and approaches their second choice. If he says no they then move on to choice three and so on down the line until they find a candidate that they want and who wants to accept the job.
Once a candidate accepts the job and his agent negotiates a contract the process moves very quickly. The new coach is put on a private plane and brought to campus and he is introduced as the new basketball coach. There will be no public dog and pony show where he is spotted interviewing, looking at houses etc. He has to be prepared to accept the job if an offer is extended to him. If his current school gets wind of negotiations and something falls through he could jeopardize his job so everything has to be done in secrecy and in a very timely fashion.
With Colangelo involved we have to look at who he would probably turn to for advice on college coaches. Who is he closest to in college basketball? That most definitely would be Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who has been the Team USA coach for the past several years. Colangelo is the head of USA Basketball so their relationship could play a huge role in determining who is the next coach of the Fighting Illini.
Just talked to my good friend Sam Mitchell. Former NBA Coach of The Year! He's interested in the Illini. We should be interested too.— Kendall Gill (@KendallG13) March 12, 2017
Here is my list of candidates (in alphabetical order) for the Illinois job. Keep in mind that this list is fluid and could change as jobs are filled and others open.
Tony Bennett - Virginia
Bryce Drew - Vanderbilt
Scott Drew - Baylor
Dan Hurley – Rhode Island
Tim Jankovich - SMU
Gregg Marshall – Wichita State
Cuonzo Martin - California
Frank Martin – South Carolina
Archie Miller - Dayton
Buzz Williams – Virginia Tech
Steve Wojciechowski – Marquette
To attract names such as Tony Bennett, Gregg Marshall and Buzz Williams it will take a financial commitment in the neighborhood of $4 million per season to convince them to leave their current jobs. Marshall is making $3.1 million at Wichita State and with the top job in the Missouri Valley, he may be hesitant to leave a position that is clearly the best in the league and he has dominated the Valley for the past several seasons. The rest of the candidates will all command salaries north of $2 million per year and some will be able to demand $3 million or more per season.
So, add it all up and you have a very attractive job, outstanding facilities and a great conference. Whitman should also have enough money to land a great coach but he has to execute. Can he? I'm betting that Illinois makes a very solid hire.