CHAMPAIGN — It is appropriate for UI fans to expect more success than Jolette Law was able to deliver. Even she would agree.
Is women's basketball a high-priority item? Not when compared with Illini football and men's basketball. They're the twin engines that boosted the athletic budget beyond $70 million and toward $80 million. But women's basketball is spending too much on salaries, distant events and recruiting to fail on such a grand scale.
It needed a jolt. So Mike Thomas did what he was brought here to do. He provided that jolt. To the surprise of no one, the first-year athletic director overruled the Law on Friday. Her ouster won't be as expensive as cutting loose Ron Zook, but it will add to the pile of lost dollars. Law is guaranteed the full $620,000 in the two remaining years of her contract.
Between Zook ($3.2 million), Law and the possibility of a three-year, $3.9 million payout to Bruce Weber, the DIA could be paying a record amount of roughly $7.7 million for three coaches not to coach. This seems overwhelming, but is typical of what's happening in the marketplace. A survey last year found that 51 public universities from the six BCS conferences paid nearly $40 million to dump their coaches.
This raises the question whether Thomas should take a harder look at contractual arrangements that allow ousted coaches to receive full salaries here while working and being paid somewhere else. But this seems to be the nature of things on pension-strapped campuses where golden parachutes are fluttering so thick you can't see the sky.
Law's quintet had shown signs, but her five-year record in the Big Ten didn't offer much hope. It is 27-59 (31.4 percent). And the program suffers compared to a successful UI volleyball operation, which pays the head coach approximately half of her salary and yet produces crowds at Huff Hall that more than double the cagers' attendance at the Assembly Hall.
Without embarking on the Hall-Huff debate, the conclusion is obvious: Women's basketball needed something dramatic. And there was little to indicate Law could provide it.
As Theresa Grentz demonstrated, however briefly, women's basketball doesn't have to reside in the conference basement. We live in a state bubbling with high school talent. And the conference is by no means overwhelming, with no Big Ten members approaching the elite level where Baylor, UConn and Tennessee reside.
Check out Penn State. This is a community without much of a basketball culture. The Nittany Lion men draw modest crowds. The Penn State women lost their last 12 games in 2008 and were 32-56 in the Big Ten in the five seasons ending in 2010. But in this, the fifth season for Coquese Washington, she got it turned and they captured the regular season title by two full games. So, yes, with a little ingenuity and a little luck it can be done.
This isn't a call for Illinois to climb Everest or Kilimanjaro. Just be relevant. There is a currently snoozing Illini fan base anxious to be awakened — they might even outdraw volleyball — if women's basketball becomes relevant.
Whine and jeez
My jaw is still agape, and newsroom heads are spinning over the latest UI administrative revelations.
It caused me to question the professionalism at the top, and seek the definition of "whiny," which is "to complain or protest in a childish manner." That's what I thought after reading heavily redacted emails involving UI President Michael Hogan.
I was aware that former AD Ron Guenther had differences with Hogan, who took a particular interest in sports. Hogan's office prevented an attempt by the athletic department to make a mid-level hire that Guenther approved. And Hogan attended conference events previously handled by the chancellor.
More recently, I wouldn't have thought much about Hogan's concern over a portion of Tim Beckman's football contract because, as noted, it wasn't clear due to the email's blacked-out portions. But when he made an issue over not being escorted, along with Gov. Pat Quinn and UI Trustee Lawrence Oliver, to the field after the UI's bowl victory in San Francisco, my jaw dropped. Even if they're slighted, leaders don't act that way. Why not just get on the elevator?
In his quiet hours, new AD Thomas must wonder how he fell into such a contentious atmosphere. He inherited three slipping sports programs in desperate need of change, caught heat from Oliver and James Montgomery for failing to hire a black football coach, is squarely in the eye of the men's basketball hurricane, and is watching a thoroughly dysfunctional operation at the UI's high administrative level.
Hogan is fortified by trustee backing but has lost the faculty. His leadership is greatly diminished. My concern, in the fun and games department, is that Thomas may soon see the necessity of taking on another monster assignment with unnecessary breath on the back of his neck.
What are his restrictions? If he fires an African-American coach, does the hierarchy expect him to find an African-American replacement? Is gender a consideration? If Weber must go, will Thomas have a free hand in replacing him?
You wouldn't expect to see questions like this hovering over a world-class university. But after watching this operation, who knows?
Let the man work. He is the one who'll still be around to answer for his decision.
Why I feel OLD ...
In the distant past I would get a haircut. Now I get my hairs cut ... on almost an individual basis. Actually, I’m thankful for the strands that hung around. But I long for the missing.
Why I feel YOUNG ...
I can’t help myself. Spring accompanies by two favorite pastimes, and here they are: Illini football and the St. Louis Cardinals. Play ball! And let’s see if Tim Beckman’s energetic approach pays off.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.