By Joe Henricksen
A week ago I was driving the Shaka Train. I was the railroad engineer, train operator, conductor -- whatever you want to call me -- in calling for VCU coach Shaka Smart to be the guy to lead Illinois basketball.
I also hinted it may be a longer shot to land Smart than many people expected. And with all that Smart had going at VCU -- a place he loved coaching, making $1.2 million a year, upgrades in the program, another NCAA Tournament team, seven of his top eight players returning next year with a couple of stud recruits coming in, off-the-charts perks for a mid-major program and, according to almost everyone, not being consumed by $$$$ -- he had the right to think he could be the Mark Few of the east or, at the very least, be extremely patient with his next coaching move.
The zealousness I had for the Smart Illinois hire was highlighted in this very blog. The Hoops Report said to make it impossible for Smart to turn down Illinois. But unless something dramatically changes, Illinois will be Shakaless, according to three sources close to the Illinois-Smart scenario -- two of which are very close. It's just not going to happen. And the reasons that were given all made sense.
There has been so much Shaka Fever in these parts it almost seemed like the guy was actually coaching Illinois in Thursday night's win over Wichita State. Might Shaka Smart even be included in next year's Illinois basketball media guide, listed right there with Harry Combes, Lou Henson, Bill Self and Bruce Weber with a 0-0 coaching record? (Shaka would only have eight fewer Fighting Illini wins than Gene Bartow, however.)
But one thing that hasn't changed is the fact Illinois needs to forget Plan C and Plan B and continue to do whatever it takes to get Plan A done. And that's to go hire a difference-maker, a coaching star. It's in athletic director Mike Thomas' hands, and hopefully the money is there and the program is committed to providing whatever resources a superstar coach requires. It's OK to have more than one Plan A.
If indeed these sources who said in the last 24-36 hours that Shaka to Illinois is not going to happen are correct, all it does is change who Plan A is at this time. There is a new Plan A out there. The problem is you just don't want to miss on this Plan A -- and we'll go maybe one more Plan A after that -- because then you really are back to the drawing board.
As many names are being floated around for the Illinois basketball coaching vacancy, they all aren't the guy who can truly elevate the Illinois basketball program to the level fans expect. They all aren't home run hires. It's not that easy. This isn't to say that many of the names being tossed around aren't very good coaches; many of the names are capable of doing a fine job at Illinois. But the list of candidates, we're talking legitimate candidates, who are potential coaching superstars is limited. There is a difference between being a really good basketball program and an elite basketball program. And it starts with the next coach Illinois hires.
Which brings me back to what was really the point of my Shaka column last week, which highlighted what Illinois needed to do -- at that time to lure Shaka Smart -- to land that superstar coach. In that "Next Illinois Basketball Coach" column, there was a point-by-point look at what Illinois basketball should look like in terms of money, resources and perks an elite coach receives at an elite program.
And Illinois needs that elite, superstar coach. It needs a face to the program in the worst way, a face and name that resonates past central Illinois, in the city of Chicago and beyond. With me now resigning my post as the railroad engineer of the Shaka Train, it's on to the next one.
The Johnny Dawkins rumors are swirling around me, including the fact the Stanford coach made the long trek to Peoria to watch Jabari Parker while his team is preparing for a NIT matchup with Illinois State on Monday. If Dawkins sticks around for today's games in Peoria as well? Hmmmm ... We'll see. His plane was expected to leave early this morning. But Dawkins is getting a strong push from two influential, heavy hitters.
Which brings me back to Plan A scenario. And remember, the amount of type Plan A's out there are limited. You don't want to go too far down the line before you're back to the "Yes, he's a quality coach and will do a nice job at Illinois" line of thinking when you should be thinking "GET ME A POTENTIAL STAR!"
One highly rumored name, Alabama's Anthony Grant, would work. He brings a "business approach that is respected," but "he may not bring the bubbly personality that reverberates immediately," according to someone very familiar with Grant. And maintaining current assistant coach Jerrance Howard and putting together the ideal staff would be imperative with a Grant hire. There is zero immediate connection to the Midwest or Chicago, but Grant would satisfy and probably excite the fan base, has showed he can coach and get teams to a NCAA Tournament, brings an exciting style of play that fans would enjoy watching and recruits have fun playing in, and ends the hiring a minority drought. Grant and Illinois would work.
And then there is the name that, for whatever reason, has been hardly discussed.
Marquette's Buzz Williams.
Originally, the thought was Buzz Williams was untouchable. He makes a huge chunk of change (between $2.5-$2.8 million last year), his program has one of the biggest basketball budgets in the country, he has the Golden Eagles rolling and his buyout is too big for suitors to take him seriously.
However, the buyout for Williams is apparently fiction, put out there by Marquette people as a protective shield. The dollar amount of the buyout, rumored to be in between $1-$1.5 million, is actually one of the smaller ones among high-major coaches -- $100,000, according to a close source.
In addition, there are rumblings that despite all the success up at the Big East school in Milwaukee, everything might not be as kosher as perceived between Williams and Marquette. But it's also believed that there has been zero contact or even feelers put out by Illinois to Williams.
That may not change, but it should. Williams is adored by coaches in the city. He has a wide-ranging recruiting base. His teams play extremely hard and with a high level of toughness. He's taken four straight teams to the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 berth last year. He's won 26 games and counting this year and a date with Murray State on Saturday in the Round of 32.
So there you go. Unfortunately, the conductor of the Shaka Train has stepped off, forced to more than wanting to, but has provided two more names that could get Illinois basketball rolling.
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