Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas has said he plans to have a diversified candidate pool in the search for school’s next basketball coach. But it is uncertain how much of a factor race will ultimately be in the process -- and whether Illinois will change its athletic history.
The fact is Illinois has never hired an African-American head coach in men’s basketball or football. Nebraska and Purdue are the only other Big Ten schools to have never done the same.
Part of the reason Illinois is in that category is circumstantial -- at least recently. Thomas reportedly pursued Kevin Sumlin, an African-American, for Illinois’ football opening in December. Sumlin, however, turned down the Illini and opted for Texas A&M.
However it may have gotten there, Illinois is still in a category that doesn’t reflect well on the university and its diversity.
“I do feel it’s a negative,” ESPN college basketball analyst and Illinois alumnus Stephen Bardo said. “It sends a certain message that doesn’t resonate well with student-athletes from urban areas. The previous regime liked to stay in their comfort zone, but the rest of the Big Ten is much more progressive and in many ways more successful.”
Two Illinois board of trustees members brought a higher level of public awareness to Illinois’ lack of African-American head-coaching hires when they voted against the appointment of football coach Tim Beckman on Jan. 19. Trustees James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver said they had nothing against Beckman but were disappointed Illinois hadn’t aggressively pursued an African-American coach.
Oliver spoke with ESPNChicago.com on Jan. 20 and explained why he voted as he did.
“I think over years and decades a fair process should produce some diversity in those high-profile positions, and it just hasn’t happened,” Oliver said on Jan. 20. “The vote more than anything was to bring some attention to the fact, ‘Listen, there are a lot of qualified African-Americans in these two major college sports. For some reason, we’ve never done it.’ I wanted folks to be mindful of that. My vote was essentially to raise the awareness of it and hopefully more thought will be put into future considerations.”
Oliver was also asked if he thought Illinois needed to hire an African-American men’s basketball or football head coach whenever those jobs became available again.
“Whether I’m a trustee at the time [of another hiring] or not, I would want an emphasis placed on pursuing a diverse slate of candidates with the understanding of we’ve never had a black coach, and that’s something that puts us in a category that you don’t want to be in, especially in major colleges and Big Ten schools,” Oliver said. “I’m not saying absolutely hire a coach, but be more mindful of it.
“I know a lot of people have strong opinions about this. It’s a hot-button issue, and I realize this. But I think it’s an important issue in the year 2012.”
Oliver declined an interview request to speak of the issue again on Friday.
Bardo has become a public advocate to Illinois pursing an African-American men’s basketball head coach.
“It’s something made very visible by the likes of me and other people associated with the program,” Bardo said. “That’s something we want to be a big-time consideration. It’s not the end all, be all. I want the best coach to take over the program. But I want consideration of an African-American coach to lead the program in the direction to where it was when I went there. I don’t think that’s been done in the past.
“Until the university makes a true commitment to diversity, this is the outcome we’re going to get. To move to another level, another direction, you have to try different things.”
Among the possible candidates who would meet that criteria are VCU head coach Shaka Smart, Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar, former NBA and college coach Reggie Theus, Alabama head coach Anthony Grant, Illinois interim head coach Jerrance Howard, Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker, Detroit head coach Ray McCallum and Simeon high school coach Robert Smith.
Thomas was asked directly whether there was pressure to hire an African-American coach during an interview on ESPN 1000 on Friday.
“For me and really as it falls under my job description, it’s really about getting the best basketball coach,” Thomas said. “But in saying that, it’s also my job to make sure that we have a quality pool and diversified pool. We have to have a diversified pool. We got to have some diversity. It’s got to be a pool of strong candidates. But at the end of the day, it’s my job to get the best candidate at the University of Illinois.”