CHAMPAIGN — Mike Thomas is waving his wand. But there is nothing magical about hiring a new basketball coach. Downward trends are not easily reversed.
That's why I bite my tongue when people suggest that in two or three years, Illinois will be back on top.
If you think success is automatic, let me suggest one of two things: (1) To maintain your optimism, stop reading now or (2) get real and check Las Vegas for the odds. There's heavy money weighing in against.
As necessary as it was, firing Bruce Weber was hard. He's a good man. Now, locating someone who can improve on Weber's 210-101 record could be even harder. It's bad enough that Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, John Beilein, Bo Ryan, Matt Painter and Tom Crean have head starts, but this Illini squad will be gasping for air if/when Meyers Leonard turns pro. This unit could barely operate when he wasn't drawing double-teams.
What Illinois has returning is not upper-division talent. In this era of the three-point shot, this team just finished in a virtual dead heat with Penn State for last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting and three-point defense. Illinois gave up 69 more arc points on 55 fewer shots. Alone, those two facts make it nearly impossible to win. Couple that with erratic ball handling (Brandon Paul ran his turnovers to 109), and help is needed ... and it isn't yet coming.
The upcoming junior class, once so promising with Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Leonard, would be void if Joe Bertrand hadn't redshirted. Upcoming seniors Tyler Griffey, D.J. Richardson and Paul are best known for their struggles. After three years, we pretty much know what to expect.
So, it appears that much of the future responsibility will fall on the upcoming sophomores, who offered little this season to lift them out of the mystery class. And before you counter with their high school rankings, remember: We've seen them now.
Be careful what you wish for
I'm drawn to the words of analyst Seth Davis: "This is yet another example of just how misguided criticism of coaches can be. If fans aren't happy — at some point, most of them aren't — their reflexive reaction is to call for a coaching change. In the grand scheme of things, however, the coach is not nearly as fundamental to a program's success as many fans want to believe. All you have to do is look at Steve Alford's record before and after his Iowa tenure, not to mention Iowa's record before and after Alford coached there. It starts with unrealistic expectations ... and Alford was undercut by his then-athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, who refused to stand up to the message-board crowd in Alford's defense."
Alford wasn't fired at Iowa. But he was certainly pushed. His Hawkeyes were 61-67 in conference play with three NCAA teams in eight years, and the fans were up in arms. So Iowa went for the flavor of the day, Todd Lickliter, 131-61 at Butler with two Sweet 16 teams.
Lickliter promptly went 38-57 at Iowa and was replaced by Fran McCaffery, who put Siena in three NCAA events before starting his upstream swim in Iowa City's frozen waters. Former Chicago Bulls guard Bobby Hansen, now a Hawkeye radio analyst, pointed out: "The young recruits on Iowa's list can't remember when Iowa was good. Their memories go back only a few years. And the same goes for our university students. They lost the habit of attending games. It's tough to get back up when you're down."
Tough to rebuild
Hansen makes my point. When a program starts sinking, it is doubly difficult to rebuild.
Next example: Georgia. Like the rest of the SEC, they're under the shadow of Kentucky's one-and-done semi-pro program. Back in 2003, Georgia snapped up Western Kentucky's red-hot Dennis Felton, who was on a 39-5 run in the Sun Belt and would probably have been Illinois' coach if he had waited a year before jumping. By 2008, Felton's Bulldogs were 4-12 in the SEC and, during the 3-13 season that followed, he was replaced.
So Georgia got serious again and went for Mark Fox, the Nevada sensation who was 66-16 in the WAC. Good choice. Or was it? Of Fox's three SEC campaigns, two wound up at 5-11. Oops!
And now we turn to Oklahoma. After Kelvin Sampson outran the NCAA sleuths to Indiana, where he would set that program back for years, Jeff Capel arrived in Norman from a four-year, 79-win venture at VCU. Yes, he had the Commonwealth rolling before Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart. And Capel's Sooners started 25-1 in 2009 before sophomore superstar Blake Griffin suffered a late-February injury. Fast forward two years. Griffin had long since turned pro, Capel went 4-12 and 5-11 in the league, and boom! He gone. Ever-mobile Lon Kruger took the call after Weber turned it down, and the Sooners are right back at 5-13 and wondering where to go from here.
Change was necessary
Enough already. Examples can be found both ways. For good or bad, the change was necessary, both for Weber and for the program.
In the words of Mike Thomas, "we've been running in place for four or five years, and in some cases even regressed. Bruce Weber is a quality person who is everything you'd want in terms of how he represents the university, but it's important that we compete at the highest level."
Thomas cited a drop in attendance "by a couple thousand ... there were a lot of empty seats," and is eager to see the fan base uplifted not only for the games but in terms of excitement needed to influence corporate interests in the proposed Assembly Hall renovation.
This is a major undertaking, and Thomas surprised by indicating that he "would probably" involve an expensive search firm. There had been a presumption that the AD, who has been contacted repeatedly in recent weeks by interested parties, already had a strong working list of likely candidates.
But that indicates how thorough Thomas wants this search to be. It's that important. He is on the line for the university's two most important sports programs. And both those bottles are half-full, half-empty ... and with the possibility of going either way. There are too many complications for either football or basketball to be considered a cinch ... or even likely.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.