Shaka Smart snub leaves Illinois searching

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CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 20: Associate head coach Chris Collins of the Duke Blue Devils reacts while taking on the Michigan Wolverines during the third round of the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 20, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Chris Collins

It’s Always Complicated at Illinois . . . Chapter 397.

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart told Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas on Wednesday that he’s not interested in becoming the Illini’s next basketball coach, multiple sources told the Sun-Times.

Smart, 34, turned down a $20.8 million offer – eight years at $2.6 million a year, a source said – to succeed Bruce Weber, who was fired after nine years in Champaign.

Why turn down that kind of life-changing money?

Smart is making $1.2 million at VCU, excellent for a mid-major. Even though he and his wife enjoy big-city life, a source said, he wasn’t interested in the tricky recruiting of Chicago. With all but one important player back, he’s in no hurry to leave Richmond, a city where the Smarts are treated well.

“Shaka wants to win a national championship,” the source said. And while Illinois has a big upside for the right coach, when Smart leaves VCU, he’ll do it for a program that’s better positioned to go for all the marbles.

Smart has become such a celebrity that VCU issued a press release to announce he was staying in Richmond.

Where Thomas goes from here is uncertain. Alabama coach Anthony Grant, apparently responding to speculation he was on Illinois’ radar, reportedly has said he’s not interested in the Illinois job.

And now that Illinois’ ability to pay big dollars is out there, negotiating with other candidates could become more difficult.

“Shaka was a guy that moved all the needles. Coaching. Recruiting. Personality. You name it,” a source said. “Does Anthony Grant do that?”

No. Few coaches do. That’s why Illinois went so hard at Smart.

Thomas is under pressure to hire a minority coach because Illinois is one of three Big Ten schools that have never had a minority head coach in men’s basketball or football. But Thomas has been on record since last fall as saying that while he’s sensitive to the diversity issue, his agenda is to hire the best coach.

Other possible minority candidates include Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, former New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins and South Florida coach Stan Heath.

But all come with one drawback or another. Hamilton, 63, seems to be too old. Theus and Dawkins too unproven. Heath too uneven. And it’s not clear why Romar would change jobs.

If Thomas, rebuffed by two top minority candidates, can move on to an open competition, there are more choices. But they also come with one kind of warning or another.

Thomas’ flashiest option might be Duke assistant Chris Collins, but Collins lacks head-coaching experience and Duke assistants haven’t set the world on fire. Butler coach Brad Stevens is so entrenched in Indianapolis, even a two-hour change of address seems major. It’s also difficult to see why Buzz Wiliams would leave Marquette. Kansas State’s Frank Martin has been mentioned, but seems even more curious.

One coach who fits Thomas’ hiring profile is Ohio coach John Groce, a Thad Matta assistant at Xavier and Ohio State. He’s been successful in the Mid-American Conference, where Thomas is from, as well as the NCAA tournament, where Thomas wants to go.

The Bobcats will meet South Florida in the Sweet 16 on Friday. As a 14th seed two years ago, Ohio stunned No. 3 seed Georgetown 97-83.

Groce, 40, doesn’t run complex stuff, but he has a reputation as a strong recruiter who’s proven himself in the muddy recruiting waters of Chicago. The team’s leading scorer and playmaker, 5-11 D.J. Cooper, is from Seton Academy, in South Holland.

Groce’s drawback? Like Tim Beckman, hired in December to replace Ron Zook as Illinois football coach, Groce probably won’t excite Illini Nation, let alone the nation, the way Smart would have.

With no boom-Shaka-laka to pump up Illinois’ tired program, Thomas will be hard-pressed to create a buzz with his hire, when he finds one.

In the end, though, no matter who ends up as coach, it will be about winning.

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