The next Illinois basketball coach

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By Joe Henricksen

A little less than a decade ago, the Hoops Report had its choice for the next Illinois head coach when Bill Self departed for Kansas. The belief here was Thad Matta, the successful coach at Xavier, was perfect. He was a local boy who, very likely, would have been more than content to stay put in Champaign, which was something athletic director Ron Guenther coveted after watching Lon Kruger and Self leave for bigger jobs and more pay.

Now, almost 10 years later, the Hoops Report’s vision is very clear again. Forget plan B and plan C. Just do whatever it takes to get plan A done. But Illinois is going to have to be clear with its vision and be prepared to go big. The Illinois basketball program will need to go overboard in comparison to what it has done in the past, step up in terms of contract years, bonuses, perks and money. It’s time.

First, I make getting access to a plane very easy for the next coach, assuring any new coach that this perk will be readily available. This is how an elite program operates. This sounds simple, but you wouldn’t believe what an underrated perk this is for college coaches–and one more and more coaches call for in their negotiating. Every top-tier program has this available to them. Did Bruce Weber have access to a plane from time to time? Sure. But we’re talking rock star-like, full access plane availability.

I also show what the plan is to renovate Assembly Hall, which has quickly evolved into one of the worst facilities in the entire Big Ten. Illinois is past due for a major upgrade, and that has to be laid out to the next coach, showing that it’s feasible and doable–and sooner than later. Take a look at the facilities at Michigan State and Ohio State, currently the two premier programs in the Big Ten. There is no comparison.

I also give the head coach a minimum of $550,000 (preferably $575,000) to spend on his three assistant coaches. That’s going to allow you to, yes, spend really big on one superstar assistant and still be able to pluck two more top assistants off most staffs around the country. It was absurd that Jerrance Howard needed to be coveted by other programs before being taken care of by Illinois.

I give this head coach the security with a minimum of six years, going to seven years if needed. Have you looked at the length of so many of these college coaches’ contracts? And we’re not just talking high-major coaches or coaches at the nation’s most elite programs. Lorenzo Romar at Washington is signed through 2020 at $1.7 million a year. Anthony Grant at Alabama is signed through 2018, Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa through 2020 and Brad Stevens at Butler through 2022.

And, most importantly, I open the checkbook and throw around all kinds of money. You can’t afford to mess around and hide pennies. Not this time. Not in this climate, both in the college coaching world and where the state of the Illinois basketball program currently sits. It’s just the nature of the beast in college coaching. Say what you want about coach Bruce Weber, but what Illinois brought him in at in terms of money ($450,000 per year) and years (5 years)–even at that time–was almost embarrassing. Elite programs, top 15 programs, do not work that way.

So that means paying a minimum of $2.2 million a year and willing to go to $2.5 million for six or seven years. The $15 million for six years is a nice round number — and an astronomical one, especially when you consider it’s a million more than the coach who took the program to a Final Four and won the only two outright Big Ten titles in over 50 years was making.

But I’m not done.

In addition to the high price tag that needs to be paid to the next coach, Illinois needs to get creative with its contract. And that means bonuses. There are many coaches around the country with attainable performance bonuses in their contracts. In addition to his annual $900,000 per year deal, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall gets $18,000 for a conference title, $18,000 for NCAA Tournament berth, $36,000 for a trip to the Sweet 16 and $54,000 to reach a Final Four. Among many bonuses he receives, Grant gets $25,000 for graduating 85 percent of his players and $100,000 for taking Alabama to an Elite Eight. VCU’s Shaka Smart has 30 different bonuses in his contract to add to his $1.2 million per year deal.

So in addition to the $2.2-$2.5 million per year salary, Illinois can lump in a whole bunch of other incentives and bonuses to lure its next head coach.

There is no question the high dollar amount will put pressure on a coach who will be dealing with a fan base that is already a little misguided with expectations.

But you know what? Superstar coaches can handle it. They can handle it all and they aren’t afraid of expectations. And true superstar coaches, who excel and thrive in various facets of the profession, are way more difficult to find than you think — and actually attract. Illinois hired one when Bill Self was brought in from Tulsa. But even when Self was hired, no one could have guessed Bill Self would become the Bill Self superstar we now know he is.

Illinois is a really good basketball job. No, it’s not a top 15 job as many Illinois fans believe it is. But when you consider there are just over 340 Division I schools, Illinois is clearly in the top 10 percent of all college basketball jobs in the country. That’s still saying something.

If the salary is in the $2.2-$2.5 million range, along with additional bonuses and perks previously mentioned, the job climbs a little closer to that top 15 or top 20 job status.

Which brings me to the name the Hoops Report feels so confident in giving that type of coin to if Illinois is absolutely prepared to go the big boy route, which Illinois must do to secure the high-level coach fans expect. What’s odd is the name fits with what the fans seem to want and the current athletic director has his eyes on.

Shaka Smart.

Many fans are clamoring for Smart and, according to one close source, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas is clearly targeting him. And, heavenly sent, they’re both right and on the same page. He needs to be the No. 1 target. He needs to be 1A, 1B and 1C. Yes, he is the hot mid-major coaching name, but it’s more than that. This isn’t about winning the press conference, which this hire would do, or about the catchy name or hiring a minority. This is about hiring the best, most realistic candidate that has superstar potential.

Will people and “experts” have concerns or questions? Sure. Handing out that kind of dough and security to a coach at Smart’s age with just four years of head coaching experience under his belt is, pretty much, unprecedented. And then there is the system. As fun and entertaining as it is to play in that style as a player and watch as a fan, it’s rarely ever been done in the tough, rugged, grind-it-out Big Ten. There have been samplings. Illinois’ famed Flying Illini did a whole lot of pressing and trapping with Kenny Battle at the top of that press. And Iowa, under Dr. Tom Davis, was another Big Ten program that had success with its fullcourt pressure throughout the 1980s. That was Iowa’s calling card, their “system”. But those styles, though similar to VCU’s current identity, were never to the degree VCU plays or havoc it tries to create. The Rams are relentless in getting out and pressing and trapping fullcourt.

But the positives far outweigh the questions and concerns with Smart. Yes, the fact Smart guided VCU to a monumental Final Four berth last year put him in earlier-than-expected stardom. But the fact he lost what he did from that team and is right back in the NCAA Tournament this year is even more appealing. He’s won 27, 28 and 28 games in three seasons.

When you watch Smart’s VCU team play, YOU want to get in the game–or at least be in the darn arena watching them. But what has been more interesting is talking to various people over the past few weeks who are a whole lot more familiar with Smart. As many others have, I’ve been personally impressed with Smart, so I started researching this potential Illinois coaching candidate several weeks ago.

Personally, I like that Smart has worked under two coaches in Billy Donovan and Oliver Purnell with proven track records of recruiting, building a program and playing fun styles of basketball. But it’s what so many people have to say about Smart, including many off-the-record conversations where there is no reason to praise the hotshot young coach. There are just too many people who have too many great things to say about him to ignore, including …

Smart’s system is “chaotic discipline.”

His teams “are relentless and wreak havoc.”

He brings “accountability throughout the program without the dictatorship attitude.”

He is “wicked smart” and “organized.”

He “relates to everyone” in basketball circles–from prospects to parents to prep coaches to coaching colleagues.

He will have “a Bill Self rise.”

He brings “a passion and energy that is true in every sense.”

He will “never have a problem recruiting, no matter where he goes because he’s personable and gets after it.”

In addition, a Smart hire will re-light a new fuse under current assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who is feeling such mixed emotions. While talking with Howard earlier on this hectic Friday, he was emotional and distraught over the fact the man he respects and cares so much about, Bruce Weber, was let go. But he also knows that he now has a job to do as interim coach of the program, no matter how long or short that might be.

More importantly, as it pertains to Smart, it’s one head coach who Howard would be enamored working under. While it remains to be seen whether Smart will want to keep Howard on board, it seems silly to part ways with a coach who has true Illini blood running through him and has built a bond and earned respect from those around the city of Chicago and state of Illinois. But there will be plenty of heavy hitters pursuing Howard as an assistant in the coming month.

The question is whether Smart has interest in Illinois. He turned down N.C. State last year and could have had the Maryland job, according to many. From all accounts, he loves coaching at VCU and he and his wife love living in Richmond. He has a young, talented team in place that is going to its second straight NCAA Tournament. He makes great money ($1.2 million per year plus all those bonuses) with less overall pressure. His contract is lengthy and offers security. He has access to a plane. The facilities are good and in the process of being upgraded. He can be choosy. He has the right to think he could be the Mark Few of the east.

These are all the reasons why Illinois needs to do all it can to make it impossible for Smart to say no to being the next coach at Illinois. When you have a star–or the potential to hire one–you do what it takes. Illinois should have taken care of Bill Self well before Kansas even became a real possibility. Although it may have not changed things, at least it would have made Self even more hesitant than he already was of leaving Illinois. Maybe Smart says no. But make it a toss-and-turning, can’t-sleep-at-night decision for him.

Shaka Smart is the biggest potential superstar coach-in-waiting. Will Illinois be able to convince him of that and land him?

Follow Joe Henricksen the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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