Why, we wondered, would athletic director Mike Thomas spend $90,000 for a search firm when — supposedly — he already knows his top Illini basketball candidates like the palm of his hand?
If Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart had a wart, Thomas surely was aware. And the same goes for top candidates like Anthony Grant (Alabama), Buzz Williams (Marquette) and John Groce (Ohio) as Thomas works down the list.
On the other hand, if you're going to offer $20 million over eight years, or anything close to that, something beyond due diligence is essential. Christmastime rival Missouri offers a nearby example why.
Going back to Norm Stewart's retirement, Missouri took a chance on 32-year-old Duke assistant Quin Snyder. What started well turned south and ended with 42 NCAA violations leading to his forced resignation midway through the 2005-06 season. Then Mizzou turned to Mike Anderson, only to discover last year his heart was in Arkansas.
Some say the Tigers rushed it after Bruce Weber declined interest and Matt Painter left them standing at the altar. Days after Frank Haith was hired — with Tiger fans aghast over his 43-69 ACC record — they learned his Miami program was under investigation.
These inquiries take time, and while the NCAA snooped, Haith put together a dashing, high-scoring quintet that turned him into the nation's hottest coach. In votes cast prior to the NCAA tournament, he was named Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and is one of four finalists for the Naismith Award.
Missouri's a prime example
Missouri, a favorite of many bracket aficionados, was 30-4 when the Tigers were shockingly sidetracked by Norfolk State. That bad news followed a March 15 announcement that Miami guard Durant Scott must serve a six-game suspension for impermissible benefits handed out during the Haith regime, this penalty similar to the three-game suspension served by center Reggie Johnson in February. Meanwhile, the case simmers as NCAA sleuths try to make sense of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro's claim that Haith approved a $10,000 gift to recruit DeQuan Jones.
Face it, as outstanding as Haith has been in coaching the Tigers, he wouldn't have been hired if Missouri brass had prior knowledge of these accusations.
That said, Haith may survive this ongoing inquiry, even as his administrators cringe. Nor should next season's Tiger team be counted out even as seven seniors depart. Mizzou has one of the nation's premier point guards in Phil Pressey, will get 6-foot-9 star Laurence Bowers back from injury and has four transfers ready to play including 6-3 Keion Bell, a former 16-point scorer at Pepperdine, and 6-5 Auburn transfer Earnest Ross. They'll probably be favored to beat Illinois for the fourth straight year.
Thomas, meanwhile, is guarding against a $20 million mistake. He wants his top choices fully vetted. No surprises, please.
Of my personal list of 10 candidates, one has seemingly made a number of enemies while three others have vague rumors and innuendos circulating around them. These kinds of scuttlebutt may be the work of jealous rivals. There may be no truth to any of it. Because I don't have the time, contacts or subpoena power to find out — much less the $90,000 — I can only wonder. Thomas is making it his business to know.
Did Smart receive a formal offer?
Because of the media feeding frenzy that followed an unsourced Sun-Times report Wednesday — it swept the nation — Smart was obliged to publicly renounce his interest in the Illinois job. It will therefore be widely believed that he had been interviewed and held a formal offer.
It is my opinion that neither of these things happened. This mating dance was still in the preliminary stage. I'm confident Thomas intended to meet him, but I don't believe it had happened yet.
So here are my questions: Does Smart's denial of Illinois' non-offer stand as sufficient to meet the UI Board of Trustees' diversity requirement? Do members of the board expect Thomas to make a legitimate tender — as he apparently did to Houston football coach Kevin Sumlin — to a minority prospect before going any further? Are there obligations restricting Thomas before he takes the next step?
Jerry Colangelo told our enterprising beat writer Paul Klee that he "is color-blind" on basketball issues. That's the way it should be.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.