One Illinois basketball search came to an end Wednesday while the one under a national microscope continued to twist and turn, taking aim at a finish line the school doesn’t seem to be able to reach.
With the pursuit of Ohio University’s John Groce seemingly at a standstill, Illinois took the day to introduce new women’s coach Matt Bollant, who has been called the Shaka Smart of women’s basketball.
That comparison might not sit well after Smart rejected an Illinois offer, triggering an extended search. Groce has been the focus since Monday.
However, an Ohio University official said the school is "trying to generate a raise" for Groce in an attempt to keep him. Groce made $307,985 this season and earned $60,000 in NCAA Tournament bonuses for taking the Bobcats to the Sweet 16.
Illinois paid Weber slightly more than $1.5 million last season and reportedly offered Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens more than $2 million annually. It’s a huge gap to close, but Ohio University chief of staff Becky Watts acknowledged that president Roderick McDavis has been talking to donors and alumni in an attempt to retain Groce.
"In the wake of the really great success our team had, the president and others have been reaching out to alumni and friends seeking support," she said. "Any time you have a really successful coach, and you know that person is in demand from others, you want to do everything you can to keep that talent at your institution."
Groce has led Ohio to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years, winning three games. The Bobcats also won a first-round game against Georgetown in 2010.
Watts said she didn’t have a sense of where Ohio stood in its last-ditch effort to keep Groce. However, she said that there is a high sense of excitement among alumni after the tournament run, and the university is trying to capitalize.
"It really increased the name recognition for the university," she said. "Our alumni and friends are really in a very connected mode with us. We’re in the middle of a capital campaign and the president is in donor mode. He has given some focused attention as it relates to the basketball program."
The Illinois search has featured an array of sideshows this week.
Freshmen Tracy Abrams, Mike Henry, Nnanna Egwu and Devin Langford were on Twitter expressing support for assistant coach Jerrance Howard to get the job.
Former Illinois player Kendall Gill appeared on a radio show and said he would be willing to take the job if approached in order to end what he said has "sort of become an embarrassment."
And reports surfaced that the Illinois board of trustees has slowed the hiring process. Two board members voted against the approval of football coach Tim Beckman’s contract in January, voicing their desire to see more diversity in the hiring procedures.
That move seemed to place athletics director Mike Thomas under pressure to hire a minority candidate.
"The story that the process was slowed down is inaccurate. That’s absolutely not true," athletic department spokesman Kent Brown said. "There’s no reason to believe the board has slowed the process in any way and Mike has indicated that to me as well."
Reports of a press conference on Tuesday were shot down by the university, which said it had never scheduled one. And later in the day a leer jet scheduled to fly from Champaign to Athens, Ohio, was cancelled, leading to speculation about Groce’s interest.
Meanwhile, Bollant was hired after a spectacular run at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he posted a 148-19 record in five seasons. The Phoenix were 34-2 this season and reached No. 9 in the rankings before being eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by No. 2 seed Kentucky.
"It’s hard to find a coach in the country with a better reputation for winning than Matt Bollant," Thomas said.