Officials: Diversity had a place in UI coach search

Officials: Diversity had a place in UI coach search

CHAMPAIGN — Despite concerns raised earlier this year about the university's failure to hire a black person as head football or men's basketball coach, officials said in the end they wanted the best basketball coach, regardless of race.

"Any time you go through this process, you want a quality pool of candidates, but you want a diverse pool of candidates. I think that's critically important and it's important to me and it's important to this school. And we did that, and at the end of the day, I believe we hired the best coach for the University of Illinois," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas on Thursday, shortly after announcing John Groce as the new men's basketball coach.

Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who said diversity is part of the fabric of the university's academic mission, said Thomas paid close attention to the diversity issue during the search for the new coach.

"He interviewed as many people as he possibly could. Some weren't interested in moving. And you've got to move to coach here," she said.

"If we had been able to get someone to be willing to move who was as qualified or more qualified and also was a coach of color, of course we would have considered him. But I think a very important concern is to get the greatest coach that we possibly could. And I think that in (new women's basketball coach) Matt Bollant and John Groce we've achieved that goal," Wise said.

Two university trustees, James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver, voted against football coach Tim Beckman's contract in January, with Oliver complaining that the board also wasn't kept apprised of the contract's financial terms.

Oliver's comments took other trustees by surprise, and two months later the board met with Thomas at its regular meeting in Urbana.

Trustees discussed the basketball search with Thomas in closed session, talking less about specific candidates than the process itself, including the parameters for the new coach's contract based on other Big Ten coaches' salaries, board members said.

Oliver later emphasized that he had no "litmus test" for the new coach but wanted to ensure that the proper emphasis be placed on diversity.

Trustee Timothy Koritz said this week that the session with Thomas was "very beneficial to all parties." He said the sentiments expressed in January stemmed from "confusion on the board of how the process works. We didn't have an appreciation of how fast those things move."

One of Oliver's biggest complaints was that the coaching contract was "signed, sealed and delivered before we even hear anything, before we get to vote on it as a board," Koritz said.

"As a board we weren't real familiar with athletic searches. It's a far cry from an academic search like we did with Mike Hogan and Chancellor Wise. Those things move glacially compared to" athletic searches, he said.

At the session in March, Thomas explained how the process worked and how he would work with the chancellor and president when they got close to a decision.

"I think everybody felt comfortable with the way he went about it," Koritz said.

Koritz said diversity is important on all university searches.

"I'm perfectly comfortable with the search process and how they go about it, and how they try to include minorities," he said Tuesday, before the hiring was announced. "I feel really confident in Mike Thomas and his integrity."

Since the search's beginning, Thomas said, he has been in contact more than once with board Chairman Chris Kennedy, "and other board members have been very supportive of how it was been playing out."

As far as the board's involvement in hiring a coach goes, Trustee Karen Hasara of Springfield said, "I think people can make suggestions — you ought to look at so and so. ... I don't anticipate any interference on the ultimate choice," she said on Wednesday.

"If he's the best qualified, it would be nice" to have a black coach, she said. But most importantly, "we want the best qualified coach."

Earlier this week, media reports blamed a delay in Groce's hiring on interference from UI trustees.

University spokesman Tom Hardy said Tuesday that Montgomery "categorically denied that he somehow put the brakes on any announcement."

But Montgomery later told the Associated Press that he had suggested other black coaches to Kennedy and UI President Michael Hogan, including New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus and Oregon State's Craig Robinson, brother-in-law to President Obama.

Montgomery and Oliver did not return calls to The News-Gazette.

"Diversity considerations have always been a factor in coaching searches," Hardy said. "They've always been a factor in every search to fill a position at the university. Trustees asked for assurances that this was indeed the practice in athletics. They had a conversation and were assured that these diversity considerations are part of the coaching search in athletics. Trustee Oliver has expressed his satisfaction with the information that was provided, and Trustee Montgomery has as well."

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sluskiier wrote on March 30, 2012 at 10:03 am

I'm happy to see how this turned out.  I was outraged when this article came out in the News-Gazette in January.  Essentially, two UI trustees (Montgomery and Oliver) voted against hiring Tim Beckman as the head football coach because he wasn't black.  Absurd.  Karen Hasara said it nicely in this article, "If he's the best qualified, it would be nice" to have a black coach, she said. But most importantly, "we want the best qualified coach."

Montgomery and Oliver, you should be ashamed of voting against hiring someone just because of their race.  How would you feel if two white trustees voted against hiring a coach because he was black?  While I agree that diversity is important and a "nice to have," like Hasara indicated, it should not be the sole basis of the University's decision.  Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, male, female, etc., let's focus on hiring the person who can coach our team the best.

areader wrote on March 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

Well said!  I agree with your comment 100%!!!!!

areader wrote on March 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

Well said!  I agree with your comment 100%!!!!!

areader wrote on March 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

Well said!  I agree with your comment 100%!!!!!

read the DI wrote on March 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm

"Montgomery and Oliver, you should be ashamed of voting against hiring someone just because of their race."

I am reading this completely different than you, apparently. Neither Trustee appears to have been trying to dictate the terms of the hire, and neither Trustee seems to think that their vote would have changed the outcome of the hire. Instead, they used their votes to call attention to a larger issue, which is exactly what a Trustee is supposed to do. You are assigning motives to those two Trustees that simply don't hold up under scrunity.


motownmama wrote on March 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I completely agree...race, sex, nationality...who cares!  Let's get the right candidate for the position in there.