Just ask recent UI administrator Paul Kowalczyk
Who is more helpless, in terms of job security, than the collegiate athletic director after he turns over the keys to his new football coach?
If your coach wins, you're safe. If he falters, it's your fault. King Football rules.
Paul Kowalczyk learned this lesson the hard way. He's the new senior associate AD for administration under the UI's Mike Thomas who, not coincidentally, landed on this campus as the result of sparkling football hires at Cincinnati ... Brian Kelly went 12-1 in 2009 and 33-7 in a three-year stretch, and Butch Jones shared the Big East title in 2011.
Kowalczyk had a similar run. As AD at Southern Illinois, Kowalczyk brought Jerry Kill to Carbondale, where he survived a 1-10 start in 2001 to go 50-14 in a five-year resurgence.
"There wasn't much to work with there at first," Kowalczyk said. "We laid the plans to upgrade facilities (new stadium, arena renovation, lockers, offices). Kill did his job on the field and we got strong support."
SIU's football revival mirrored the stunning surge of basketball success under an inherited Bruce Weber (103-54), Matt Painter (25-5) and Chris Lowery (78-25 in his first three years). That earned Kowalczyk the job at Colorado State. Even as the AD's basketball hire, Tim Miles, did such a good job that he landed the Nebraska job this year, football coach Steve Fairchild's three 3-9 football seasons did Kowalczyk in.
You're good as gone
"Any AD wants to make the right hire, and you provide all the support you can. But it's the coach's program and you have to trust in him. In most instances, you get one mulligan," smiled Kowalczyk from his Bielfeldt office.
"You hire the wrong guy and, generally speaking, it is not so egregious that you can't hire another coach and try to work it out. Steve was my only failure. We accomplished a lot in terms of building facilities at Colorado State, and we graduated kids and ran the program with integrity."
But the fans, and some supporters in particular, weren't happy. Three days before the final game last season, Kowalczyk was called in by the president for what he thought was a discussion of the football situation. He had formed a recommendation but didn't get a chance to offer it.
"It was political, a real surprise to me," he said. "I don't know what happened behind closed doors. I went to a meeting to discuss the football situation and we never talked about it. It became a discussion of my dismissal.
"I'm speculating. It wasn't based on performance. I knew there was sentiment to replace Steve. I had a plan but I'd rather not state my position."
Having been strongly respected in the profession, the 54-year-old administrator found himself on the outside looking in. He mulled several opportunities, and applied for one AD job that didn't work out.
"When you're fired, you have this scarlet letter attached to you," he said. "This job surfaced when Vince Ille left (for North Carolina). I feel very fortunate in that regard. I've had a long association with Mike Thomas. We've been in contact since January."
"Who are those guys?"
Butch and Sundance pondered the tenacity of the posse chasing them. They were surprised. My feelings are the same in terms of baseball. Who are those guys?
Washington's Nationals had won 43.5 percent of their games in the previous seven seasons, twice topping 100 losses. They are suddenly rocking the National League. In two recent games with the Cubs, they totaled 12 home runs. They have the best record in baseball. I know about Stephen Strasburg, now shut down. But who are the rest of those guys?
What we're seeing are powerful young athletes who, unlike the older, better-paid stars in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, run all-out from home, score from third on fly balls and make miraculous plays in the field. It's a revolution. The performances in Baltimore and Tampa Bay and Oakland mimic Washington. It's time we learned who those guys are.
Football recruiting news
Illini football recruiting is going as well as could be expected — 18 commitments — considering the staff's late arrival, deep in-state skepticism and modest home attendance.
"Recruits nowadays want fancy weight rooms, oversized lockers, aesthetics," says OrangeandBlueNews.com staffer Sam Estes. "But one thing they really want to see is fan support on Saturdays. No kid wants to walk into Memorial Stadium and see empty seats."
Exactly, Sam. These athletes make multiple visits, and they see a big difference between the atmosphere at Illinois and the majority of Big Ten schools. It shows up on EdgyTim's 27-man all-state team, which has just three committed to the UI at this juncture. It's one thing for USC (Ty Isaac) and LSU (Ethan Pocic) to pluck the best, but Midwestern rivals are doing the same.
— Illini coaches continue to look far and wide, with great emphasis on Ohio (six already), and are planning visits for such standouts as Louisiana wide receiver Taijuan Thomas, Virginia athlete DaeSean Hamilton, Georgia cornerback Noel Padmore and Ohio running back Aregeros Turner. Like Illini Donovonn Young, an injury interrupted Turner's junior year.
— Peoria's 307-pound Logan Tully-Tillman, who'll join Wheaton husky Kyle Bosch at Michigan, caused a Twitter furor when he picked the Wolverines and dramatically burned his recruiting letter from Ohio State. That's a no-no, Logan.
— Among 18 UI commitments, there are as yet no listed high school receivers (one juco transfer, Martize Barr). But as happened with freshman Justin Hardee, it's likely that several listed as "athletes" will wind up at the position. Most likely are two early-season sparklers, Ottawa's Miguel Hermosillo and Ohioan Caleb Day, although Day may be needed on defense next year.
— No. 1 on the UI hope list is Crete-Monee's Laquon Treadwell, who may be down to Michigan and Illinois. If the Illini miss on him, the dropoff to the next-best receiver might be as great as the gap between Mishawaka playmaker Demetrius Jackson and the next available point guard on John Groce's board.
— Illini efforts to bolster their ever-thin defensive line took a hit when Detroit's Kenton Gibbs decommitted. That puts increasing emphasis on Peorian Josh Augusta, who has Illinois as a finalist with Oklahoma, Missouri and Michigan State.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com .