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."