CHAMPAIGN — Disappointment swept through Illini Nation last week when two of three black trustees, James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver, cited racial concerns in voting against the five-year contract given new football coach Tim Beckman.
It is a fact that Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska are the only Big Ten universities who have never had a black head coach in football or basketball, and they are three among 11 schools in the six major conferences. Several Big Ten members have met the Montgomery-Oliver requirement briefly by promoting assistants: As examples, Bobby Williams succeeded Nick Saban at Michigan State, and Mike Davis took over for Bob Knight prior to Kelvin Sampson's ill-fated two-year run at Indiana.
But if the two UI trustees wanted to register a protest, why did they choose to publicly embarrass the hiring boss, Mike Thomas, and make Beckman feel he wasn't wanted? Geez, hasn't the university had enough problems without pummeling itself? The trustees surely understood that their "no" votes wouldn't change anything. Why not make their point to Thomas in private?
There is method to their madness and, if it was an unheard dog whistle for some, it didn't miss my radar: Their minority opinion — excuse the reference — was a thinly veiled move to put Thomas on notice that, when the time comes to change the men's basketball assignment, it better be an African-American.
Montgomery and Oliver hail from Chicago, where the large African-American culture lives and dies with its basketball. And they're hearing plenty of scuttlebutt up that way, as well as down this way, that Bruce Weber is not long for the job if his Illini continue to struggle. The trustees weren't really trying to dump Beckman. They were simply shoving a foot in the door in anticipation of the next go-round, whenever it happens.
Black business and political leaders have been waging years-long battles to shoot down the good 'ol boys network and see more black coaches promoted to head jobs. To satisfy this ongoing demand for diversity, Ron Guenther was obliged to interview black candidates even if he already had a plan to hire, say ... Bill Self or Ron Zook. Not saying Guenther had his mind made up, not saying he would or wouldn't have hired Sampson without their mixup, but who knows?
This interview process is carried out without anyone really knowing whether it is serious. At the NFL level, interviews are mandatory, the "Rooney rule" requiring that African-American candidates be at least considered.
Thomas performed his due diligence. It was reliably reported, and has been confirmed by a variety of sources, that he offered the UI job to Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who decided instead to become the first black football coach at Texas A&M. Thomas was prepared to pay more to Sumlin than he ultimately paid Beckman, so it wasn't a courtesy interview. Sumlin would have been a big hit on this campus. He preferred to stay in Texas and play in the SEC.
Thomas indicated he discussed the job with other minorities, and it is believed that he talked to former Illini Kirby Wilson before the Pittsburgh Steeler assistant was severely injured in a house fire.
My complaint is not that Montgomery and Oliver are on an improper mission, but rather that it was inappropriate to publicly hang this around the neck of Thomas. Of course, if they're impatient, they have good reason. According to Jon Solomon of the Birmingham (Ala.) News, there was a 37-year gap between the SEC's first black football player and the first black head football coach. When national statistics show that 46 percent of the football players are black, my first response is, "Yeah, but the percentage of starters on defense are way, way beyond half, and the same is true at running back and receiver." And yet there were only 19 black head football coaches among 120 large schools.
So, to Montgomery and Oliver, there is merit to your mission. But you'd have a hard time convincing me that you didn't have basketball on your mind when you did it.
One last look at the Wisconsin game, enumerating the reasons for a 67-63 Illini failure:
— Jared Berggren's bumping, shoving defensive job on Illini Meyers Leonard was extraordinary. After an opening dunk, Leonard scored only one more basket while Berggren was in the game, the UI sophomore breaking loose for nine points and shooting Illinois ahead 50-46 while Berggren sat out with three fouls. Berggren returned and took charge, running his point total to 18 after five straight games in single figures. Weber's comment: "Berggren got the better of it."
— Brandon Paul, who scored 43 in his last Assembly Hall outing, was held to four points going into the last four minutes, by which time the Illini trailed 58-53. Wisconsin outscored the UI 27-9 on treys.
— Down the stretch, Illinois couldn't stop Wisconsin from scoring. The Badgers committed just two second-half turnovers and scored eight points on three offensive rebounds as a 46-43 Illini lead turned into a 55-53 deficit. That was followed directly by Berggren's killer trey and his rebound goal at 60-57, which led to a final minute of free throws.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.