A pair of SEC basketball coaches are being mentioned as potential fallback candidates at Illinois should the school fail to land VCU’s Shaka Smart. Smart is reportedly mulling over a $2.5 million per year offer from the Illini.
According to The Chicago Tribune, Alabama’s Anthony Grant — Smart’s old boss at VCU — would be a candidate for the gig should Smart decide to remain in Richmond. But Grant’s initial Memorandum of Understanding would require him to pay Alabama “the amount of the current annual base salary, multiplied by the number of years (or pro rata thereof) remaining on the contract.” Grant’s contract was extended by two years through 2018 last September and his salary is $1.8 million, though that’s not the base. Still, Grant (or Illinois in this case) would have to pay Alabama close to $2 million should the coach leave.
Washington’s Lorenzo Romar is also a candidate “according to a source” for The Tribune. And the report also claims that Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton “is lobbying hard for the job.”
If you’re paying attention you’ll notice that Illinois is “targeting African-American coaches” according to the newspaper. The likely reason for this: Illinois’ two best recruiting hot beds are Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois. Recruiting the inner-city is a goal.
Which brings us to another current SEC coach who just happens to hail from East St. Louis — Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. According to CSNChicago — the Comcast sports network for the area — “sources close to both Illinois and Martin found out that Martin would be VERY interested in coaching at Illinois. Interested enough to pull a Lane Kiffin and leave Tennessee high and dry.”
WATE-TV in Knoxville reported last night that a University of Tennessee spokesman said Martin had no interest in the Illinois job. It’s one thing for a coach to lie and say he’s not interested before hitting the road. It’s more unusual for a coach to enlist his school to put out a lie, only to surprise them with a move. Also, Martin’s Memorandum of Understanding would require him (or Illinois in this case) to pay Tennessee $2.6 million should the coach leave during his first three years in Knoxville. Call it the “Lane Kiffin Protection” clause.
But let’s take a deeper look at Martin’s situation even though we think it’s doubtful he (or Grant, for that matter) would leave for Illinois at this point.
The CSNChicago report by Gail Fischer states that “my source believes if Martin were coaching the Illini, he would put former Illini star Deon Thomas on his staff.”
Here’s where it all gets odd.
Thomas is now the head coach at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois. In the early ’90s, he became the University of Illinois’ all-time leading scorer. Before signing with Illinois, he was a top recruit out of Chicago.
As a recruit, a little known assistant at Iowa named Bruce Pearl was trying to outduel Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins for his signature. Pearl recorded a phone conversation with Thomas — without the player’s knowledge — in which Thomas stated he’d been offered a car and cash by Collins and the Illini.
Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA. The NCAA investigated and Thomas denied that he’d received such an offer. Iowa head coach Tom Davis distanced himself from Pearl’s action and the assistant was effectively blackballed for going to such lengths to bring down Illinois and for jeopardizing the eligibility of Thomas. He spent several years at the D-II level before finally moving up to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then on to Tennessee.
At Tennessee, he was brought down by secondary violations — and more importantly — a cover-up during the NCAA’s investigation of those missteps. He was replaced by… yep, Martin.
As for Illinois — which hired a law firm that included future SEC commissioner Mike Slive to represent it versus the NCAA — the Illini did get probation, just not for the stuff on Pearl’s tapes. But by starting the ball rolling, Pearl did hurt the Illinois program and — as Collins tells it — helped ruin his promising career. (Ironically enough, Pearl was the victim of a stoolie, too, as Ohio State and Thad Matta turned over information to the NCAA about a barbecue that included in attendance junior recruits Aaron Craft, Josh Selby and Jordan McRae. Pearl lied about the barbecue and his reward was a three-year “show cause” ban.)
As for Thomas — who went on to a successful playing career at Illinois — he was hired by Lewis and Clark in 2009. Three years prior he said of Pearl: “It’s hard to forgive a snake.”
Now, if CSNChicago is right, Thomas might be in line to return to Illinois as an assistant to the man who replaced the “snake” at Tennessee after he himself had been bought down by a “rat.”
How’s that for a tangled web?