Open Mike: The Football Coaching Search

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Dear Alumni, Students and Friends,

I thank you for your support of Fighting Illini football during the 2011 regular season. Our team has become bowl-eligible for the second-straight season, making it the first Illinois squad to do so since 1992. I look forward to joining them and our fans at our third bowl game in the last five years. An announcement concerning the exact bowl, date and time that our team will compete will be made in the very near future. As with all the latest news, please check FightingIllini.com.

As our search for a new head football coach moves forward, I have a strong sense of the type of coach we need to realize the potential of Illini football. I intend to contact a trusted group of friends who are well respected in collegiate and professional football circles. A successful football coach at Illinois or any top-tier college program must have talents beyond the knowledge of the game, particularly for a program intent on establishing itself consistently among the Top 25 BCS programs in the country and at the top of the Big Ten. We will find this person for Illinois!

Unlike the recruitment of a top-tier member of our faculty or the majority of prospective student-athletes, coaching candidates who reach finalist level for BCS coaching jobs are often known to the mainstream media, talk shows and message boards, which are such a big part of today's media landscape. During coaching searches - including the early stages of this process - we have heard the popularity of certain candidates in the eyes of the public. Many seem to understand what we should be looking for in our next head coach. We appreciate the letters and emails, and the passion that fuels them.

As the Director of Athletics at the University of Illinois, my charge is to be clear about the attributes of a new head coach and how each candidate fits in the best interests of Illini athletics. We have a trusted process that toes the line between short-term expectations and long-term success of the coach and the university.

Our successful candidate will have a desire to be at the University of Illinois and will have a plan to build on our foundation. You can rest assured that the subject of a long-term commitment to our student-athletes, alumni and friends will be discussed with all candidates. Our goal is a long-term partnership that will keep Illinois moving forward. We don't intend to back off our stated objective of competing for Big Ten and national championships.

Since college coaches are educators, top-flight recruiting and teaching skills are a must for the potential pool of coaches. Our successful candidate must be able to recruit in Illinois and the Midwest, and also have the network to reach out to other national recruiting hotbeds to bring in high-caliber prospective student-athletes.

It is very important that our new head coach be a person with whom you would trust your son's continued development into a successful person long after his playing days are over. My wife and I have three sons (along with a wonderful daughter) and this is a very important factor for me, as I would want the same care to be associated with individuals entrusted to develop the potential of my own kids.

In order to find an individual with these qualities, we will offer competitive compensation for the new coach and assistants, the opportunity to compete in the premier conference in the country, state-of-the-art facilities, a top-flight strength and conditioning program, the continued development of one of the best academic support programs in the nation and one of the country's top alumni and fan bases. Perhaps the biggest draw is the solid foundation of talent that has made Illinois bowl-eligible in consecutive seasons. I think our head coaching job is one of the best in the country.

We are now actively evaluating individuals and are fully aware of timelines and mandates associated with recruiting, building a coaching staff and for dealing with current head coaches. I have no doubt that our process will yield an outstanding leader for Illinois football.

In the end, our University of Illinois community will work to be a place where a great football coach wants to stay because he can find success and know that we are committed to being the best in the Big Ten and the nation.

Thanks for your passion for the program. We will have a new coach very soon and will be in touch as quickly as possible once this process is complete.

Mike Thomas
Director of Athletics

P.S.: In the near future, Illinois is expecting to receive its second-straight bowl invitation and third in the last five years. Buying bowl tickets and traveling to the game is a great way to show support for our 2011 team and Illinois football moving forward. For more information on ticket prices, travel packages, etc., check FightingIllini.com or call the athletic ticket office at 1-866-ILLINI-1.

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I think you might have missed out on Mike Leach. No way I'm going to Detroit for a bowl. Something in the Southwest would be good as I live in San Diego.

I totally appreciate your timeliness and commitment in keeping all of us up to date with what is going on, and criteria of the coaching search. I also totally agree that Illinois has a great deal of potential as a football team, and am optomistic that this will continue to be more fully realized and developed with the upcoming changes in the program. However, without trying to sound like too much of a grinch, I wouldn't play up the bowl eligibility this year too much. Frankly, I think it is a sad commentary on the current bowl selection and standards that a team that has performed so sub par in the critical, quality games during the season as the Illini have this year, is even being considered for a bowl bid. Like I say, I am totally supportive , but for some reason, I just feel compelled to call it like I see it, and not pretend that this past season is more than it is, because it really was kind of sad. Thanks for letting me express my opinion.

Thanks for the information, I appreciate it very much. Being a life long fan, I too feel the pain of the 6 game losing streak this fall, and understand we need to take the program in a different direction. Coach Zook is a very fine man, but his ability to teach the kids evidently was lacking recently. I trust you will find a replacement that will take our program to the next level, that of national recognition all the time, not just every few years.

Sincerely, Tim Stewart

Thanks Mike. This is exactly what we need to hear, and exactly what needs to guide the search and selection. I am glad to hear the goal is top tier success. Make this happen; Illiois warrants being a team of national prominence.

Dear Mike, thanks for the letter and description of the attributes you're looking for in our new head coach. I agree with all of them. My only comment is that I hope you would consider someone who is an offensive innovator. We have struggled in that area for quite a few years.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment and best of luck in your new position as Athletic Director for our great University of Illinois.

Similar to white Mike Small, Steve Stricker have been able to do with Illinois Golf Program, we are all anxiously looking forward to next Football coach and "Illini Community" to do the same, "sustained raising of the bar" for Illini Football. Robb Rugg UofI Golf '76-'79

The Illini are well represented in the NFL right now and that should be better proclaimed and celebrated. Zook is a great man and did not do anything inferior to other UofI coaches but a change was certainly in order. Best of luck in your search, we're all eager to move forward and hopefully find sustained success.

P.S. If we want to play like the big dogs we need more seats in the stadium but at lower prices. $60 for nosebleeds on the East side is ridiculous, especially against weak competition. Add seats and lower prices to keep a full, vibrant stadium.

Thank you for the update! Hopefully you and your search committee can put the hiring of a new Head Footbal Coach on the "fast track". By hiring someone with the attributes you are looking for in the next week or so would allow our players to get to know him, trust him, and respect him during the bowl prepartion period. Using the next three to four weeks as a starting point would be great start for changing the negative attitude that seems to have surronded our team over the past six weeks.

Go Illini!!!

I appreciate the description of what you are looking for in a new head coach. It is important to have a coach who can be an excellent teacher of the game as well as an excellent recruiter. We are hoping that this new coach will bring a turn around in the football program. We hope that we won't be seen as a second tier program anymore. Good luck in your search!

Thank you for your stated commitment to find a coach who has "a desire to be at the University of Illinois." We've seen--with Lon Kruger and Bill Self in the basketball program--unpleasant examples of coaches with the desire only to advance their personal agendas. Hopefully, you can keep Vic Koenning as defensive coordinator. His unit represented him well this year, and it would be good to have some continuity during the period of change that is inevitable with a new head coach. Everyone in our Illini family and among our friends would have to agree wholeheartedly with the first comment posted: any bowl game but the one in Detroit!

I for one am sorry to see Ron Zook leave. This is a difficult school to recruit for, and do it with integrity. My hope is that whoever you chose to fill this job has it firmly in his core being to do things the right way.
I have a lot of years of experience with this school, and have been hurt by the "slush fund" scandal and the Neil Stoner approach, and the lasting effects that it had on the University itself. With the problems at Penn State, USC, Ohio State (all top Football programs) that is not the model I think we should follow. However, when I read the other posts to your letter, you would think our alumni are willing to look the other way. I would hope our University leadership would not. I recognize football is about money, but at what cost? To me this is about balance. Be competitive, play with great passion, try to win every game, but don't step over the line that can embarrass those of us who have supported this program for decades.
Thank you and good luck

Mike, I agree you have a great assistant coach in Vic Koenning, I hope you consider keeping him on with the new head coach!

Thank your Mike. Your letter to the fans is most appreciated. My dad religiously attended Illinois football games from 1929 until his death in 2008. I started attending in the late '50s. We sat through a lot of losing years and a few very good ones. We are a loyal orange and blue family. I agree with previous writers about No Detroit. In fact I am against any 6-6 team going to a bowl game, especially when all the losses followed all the wins. If you can keep Coach Koenning on defenese, that would be great. Whomever you hire, the Illini loyal have faith in you with your record at Cincinnati hiring Coach Kelly, now at Notre Dame. Good luck and Godspeed. And please hire a seasoned special teams coach!

Everyone thanks you for reaching out to us. Unfortunately, your hype concerning the Illini's bowl eligibility discounts and cheapens your communications concerning your coaching search.

Don't insult our intelligence. If the Illini (and it is still a big "if" at this time) is invited to a bowl game, it will be a second or third tier venue that will add very little to the Illini Football brand or program. I hope it can be a good experience for the players, but don't expect huge support from your alumni.

We take great pride in our Illini, celebrate the victories and feel the pain of defeat. We would prefer an Athletic Director that is more focused on building a sustainable and winning program than focused on selling tickets.

I think you have a great perspective and your goals for the position are perfect. I can only hope that you achieve these goals.

From the other Mike Thomas.

Thank you for the update. I think we can all agree we want what is best for the University of Illinois. I wish you all the luck in the world and I know that it will only get better from here.

Thanks Mike. I too have been an ILLINI fan all of my life.. I'm usually excited about a bowl bid anytime and anywhere. However, its does seem like we dont deserved this one. Probably because we lost 6 games in a row, all in the big ten. However, we played good games early and should have reward for that..Lets just play a good bowl game and compete well, giving us a charge going into next year. !

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