Illinois Head Coaching Search: Shaka Smart
Mike Thomas pulled the trigger Friday morning, and just like that the Bruce Weber coaching tenure was over. After two months of speculation, the Illinois head coaching search is officially on.
In Thomas' press conference held at noon, he outlined once again what he would be looking for in a coach, and how he would go about doing it. There are several things we need to keep in mind about this, not the least of which is the effects that the football coaching search will have on this hire.
Thomas was absolutely sure he had gotten Kevin Sumlin, to come to Champaign, and had even apparently secured the three million that it would take to get him, in the end though, Sumlin played Illinois to get a bigger salary from Texas A&M, and without a big name second option, we ended up with Tim Beckman.
With that in mind, Thomas didn't seem to lock himself into the same limitations that he had announced for the football job. While his MO has always been to hire previous head coaches, Thomas made a point of saying he would not rule out hiring assistants. Which left us with essentially three parameters for his search: recruiting will be a priority, success at a high level will be a priority, and running a clean program will be a priority (sorry Bruce Pearl)\
Which leads me to the three coaching candidates which seem to be on everyone's mind this morning: Shaka Smart, Frank Martin, and Chris Collins.
Let's start with the most obvious of names, Shaka Smart, who fulfills all of the above criteria. Last season, Smart became the surprise of the NCAA tournament, when he guided the VCU Rams from the play-in game to the Final Four, knocking off the likes of Purdue and Kansas along the way. It was an incredible run and launched Smart into coaching conversations at the likes of NC State and others. Smart passed and got a long term deal for the Rams.
This year, after having lost most of the players who took him to the Final Four in 2011, VCU completely reinvented itself and made it BACK to the dance by winning the Colonial Conference Tournament and beating heavily favored Drexel. Winning with two different rosters, and actually performing better in conference this year, established Smart's bona fides as a real talented coach, not just a one year flash in the pan.
The fact that he hails from Madison, thinks of Chicago as his second home, and has previous ties to Mike Thomas at Akron only further makes Smart the slam dunk candidate for Illinois to grab.
The problems with Smart are not minor though. And the biggest of these is going to be the price tag. Thomas bought out three contracts this year, Ron Zook, Jolette Law, and now Bruce Weber. Weber's alone will cost the Athletic Department nearly four million over the next three years. Just firing the coaches is expensive enough, but the football staff got an across the board raise from what it was last year too.
Smart, everyone now assumes, will command at least a salary of 2 million dollars, for five years, and on top of that Illinois will have to deal with his large contract with VCU as well. Cash could possibly be an option, but frankly, given the chance at Smart, I think there will be a lot of donors forking it over.
The other problem is the chance that Shaka wants to take a shot at an even higher profile position. UCLA could very well be severing ties with Ben Howland this year, and even though I think very highly of the Illinois job, I wont kid myself into thinking its more attractive than Westwood. This most of all scares me about our chances of getting Shaka Smart, Texas A&M and Sumlin all over again.
The other danger is that Shaka goes the route of Brad Stevens at Butler. VCU's season isn't over yet, and who is to say that we wont have another miracle run to the Final Four. Hell, even an Elite Eight trip might be enough to convince Shaka that with guys like Krzyzewski and Calhoun close to retirement, maybe waiting around in Richmond isn't such a bad idea.
Fact is, this is a coach that Illinois absolutely needs to pull the trigger on, and it needs to do what is necessary to get the money to pay for it. If Shaka decides that he would rather go to UCLA or wait it out for Duke or somewhere like that, we can't really control that. In 1999 Bill Self was the obvious coach coming out of Tulsa. Illinois got him. It can be done.
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