CHAMPAIGN — If Illini fans could hold an election, Jim Phillips would win the UI athletic directorship in a landslide.
He fits the important criteria.
However, Northwestern is in love with him, and Phillips is reciprocal. A close follower up that way reminds that he resides next to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts on the North Side, is in close touch with Chicago powerbrokers and is raising millions for a facilities master plan. He is reportedly on the verge of signing a huge Northwestern contract that will match the years (to 2020) of his football coach Pat Fitzgerald.
My insider on this campus believes Larry DeBrock's UI search committee will boil down to three-plus-one, with Phillips the wild card with first refusal rights.
Timing is everything, and even if Phillips receives a secret feeler from UI President Michael Hogan, it would be difficult for the one-time student-manager for the Flyin' Illini to move with (1) the huge contract waiting to be signed, (2) family considerations and (3) so much unfinished business in Evanston.
So Phillips will almost certainly stay at Northwestern, where the Wildcats haven't won a bowl game since 1949 and never have made the NCAA basketball tournament. It is a challenge he relishes. It is unfortunate for the UI that the timing wasn't more favorable.
OK, assuming my theory is solid so far, who'll comprise the other three?
First, I have been told that interviews were provided for Dana Brenner and Tom Michael. However, it does not appear that the committee will stay inside.
Furthermore, I believe DeBrock & Co. will insist on a seated AD, which knocks out former UI footballer Rick George, who has shot up the ranks with the PGA and the Texas Rangers, and would be a slam-bang fundraiser here.
My favorites among the seated directors:
— Doug Woolard coached Stephen Bardo at Carbondale before becoming athletic director at St. Louis and South Florida. Since 2004, Woolard has set the campus on fire in bringing South Florida into the Big East, hiring Skip Holtz to help the consecutive bowl run reach six, and heading up extraordinary expansion in practice facilities, stadiums for baseball, softball and soccer, and a nutrition center. He has helped raise a ton of money.
— Tom Jurich was the man who turned football around at Louisville when he hired John L. Smith, and it remains an improved program. Jurich drew even more attention in basketball with Rick Pitino. Jurich has been there since 1997 and was named the top national AD by a sports/business journal in 2007.
— Maryland grad Joe Castiglione was AD at Missouri before moving to Oklahoma in 1998, and he isn't likely to move while his key hire, Bob Stoops, is preparing to make a run for the national football title. But the Big 12 is a mess, and everyone feels antsy about the way Texas is running the league. He is entering his mid-50s and might be ready for one final move.
— Brad Bates of Miami (Ohio) is, according to one person who works with him, a "rising star who deserves a shot" after taking Miami to the top rung of the MAC in terms of respect and accomplishment. The RedHawks, formerly the Redskins, rocketed up from a 1-11 football season in 2009 to finish 10-4 last season. Yes, yes, he's a Michigan man, and the UI isn't exactly celebrating the performances here of Gary Moeller, Nancy Cantor and B. Joseph White, but that's not a good reason to look down on him. He spent 17 years at Vanderbilt.
— Warde Manuel of Buffalo made a splash with the hiring of Turner Gill, who was one of five African-American head football coaches in 1-A at the time. Manuel has a good record and provides the almost-mandatory inclusion of an African-American in the UI finals.
— Mike Bobinski has spent 11 years at Xavier after working at Akron and the Naval Academy. He is a product of Notre Dame, where he played baseball for four years and served as assistant business manager. He hired Thad Matta at Xavier, and the basketball program has rolled on with six straight NCAA appearances. But Xavier doesn't have football, and that will work against him.
OK, that's more than three, and even at double that number, I am not certain any of these individuals will be on DeBrock's final list. But old friend Gus Phan has asked repeatedly how this thing is developing, and what you see here is my best guess from various sources.
As you can recognize, these are some quality candidates, and there are others like them.
Look for a new UI chancellor to be named no later than next week, which means Illinois should have a new athletic director sometime around mid-August. It could move faster if there is agreement on one candidate, and that candidate is receptive.
It is, however, most likely that the search committee will forward three names to Hogan, with perhaps a recommendation. And Hogan will either confirm or make his personal choice from the list. If there are three, it is presumed that each will have indicated that, if offered, it will be accepted.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.