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Illinois AD Thomas better at firing than hiring

Published: Monday, March 26, 2012 10:09 p.m. CST

Who are naughty kids making requests to Santa Claus, guys that pick up girls by talking about their fantasy football success and Cubs fans that pray for championships?

The answer, Alex, is that they're some of the few people on the planet who have been told "no" more often than University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.

Thomas is now on Plan T in his quest to replace Bruce Weber as Fighting Illini men's basketball coach. After being turned down by Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens, Thomas is said to be targeting Ohio coach John Groce. According to the Chicago Tribune, Groce is the sixth candidate on Thomas' list, following Smart, Anthony Grant of Alabama, Leonard Hamilton of Florida State, Lorenzo Romar of Washington and Stevens.

After being hired in August, Thomas talked big. In a sense, he has acted bigger. Gone in the span of seven months are the three most high-profile coaches on campus — Ron Zook (football), Jolette Law (women's basketball) and Weber. Those firings have reportedly cost the school more than $7 million in buyouts. All may have been warranted, but to make them all in such a short amount of time, with such cost, seemed to indicate that Thomas was serious about making the Illini among the elite in the world of Big Ten Conference athletics.

To be among the elite, you can't just rid yourself of the failed. You have to replace the failed with people capable of getting you there. Thomas has shown himself far more adept at the first part of that equation than the second.

I was never sold on former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin being he answer for football, but Thomas apparently was. He pursued Sumlin, who used the Illini as leverage on his way to a contract at Texas A&M worth a reported $2 million or so over five years. That led to Thomas settling for former Toledo coach Tim Beckman, a hire that publicly ticked off some trustees because the Illini had still never hired a black head coach. Privately, I'm sure more trustees were upset because Beckman was an unknown from Toledo.

The race issue is just one of the reasons that Smart would have been a home-run hire for Thomas. Smart was the hottest coach thought to be available in the nation. He led VCU, of all schools, to the Final Four last season, and the Rams showed something to everyone who thought they were a fluke by advancing to the third round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

I've heard some people speculate that Smart's system would be no match for the Tom Izzos and Tom Creans he would face nightly in the Big Ten. I've heard others say he would be no lock to do the one thing an Illinois coach has to do to ensure a consistent pipeline of top-shelf talent — recruit Chicago.

To the first point, I'd say that the 34-year-old Smart still has plenty of room to grow and learn, and that we don't know that him to be incapable of more complexity in what he runs. To he second, I would say that the bar for the Illini snaring Public League players is set pretty low; I'd be shocked if Smart couldn't clear it, and easily, even without ruining the clean-program reputation that the Illini have under Weber.

I think Smart could have been a home run in Champaign. We'll never know, because he turned Thomas — and the extra millions of dollars he could have made — down. So did Stevens, who led Butler to back-to-back Final Fours in 2010 and 2011.

Like Smart and Stevens, Groce has had some recent NCAA Tournament success. Ohio advanced to the second round in 2010 and to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012. The Bobcats were 15-19 in 2008-09, Groce's first season; they were 29-8 in 2011-12. Groce is older than Smart and Stevens, but at 40 years old, he can still be called an up and comer, if a bit of a late-blooming one.

But Groce's accomplishments have come on a smaller scale than anyone else that the Illini have been said to be pursuing. He wouldn't appease those clamoring for a minority coach in Champaign. And if he goes with Groce, Thomas will be settling for someone that clearly wasn't his first choice for a second straight major hire.

Maybe Beckman will lead the Illini back to the Rose Bowl, Groce will get the job and lead the basketball team back to the Final Four and Thomas will look like a genius five years from now. I certainly don't know enough about Beckman and/or Groce to say they'll definitely fail. But right now, it is hard to be impressed with anything about Thomas other than his ability to fire people.

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