CHAMPAIGN — Before heading to his bunker to lead the search for the next Illinois men’s basketball coach, athletic director Mike Thomas listened to the national pundits saying it's definitely a top 15 program. So does that kind of program hire a coach like John Groce who posted a 34-30 record in the Mid-American Conference? The Illini basketball program and Thomas will be judged moving forward.

CHAMPAIGN — Before heading to his bunker to lead the search for the next Illinois men’s basketball coach, athletic director Mike Thomas listened to the national pundits talking about the job vacancy and the school’s ability to hire a high-profile candidate.

“It might not be a top 5 program,’’ Thomas said Thursday, shortly after introducing Ohio University coach John Groce to replace Bruce Weber. “You heard them say it’s a top 10 or definitely a top 15 program. I believe that.’’

So does that kind of program hire a coach who posted a 34-30 record in the Mid-American Conference? The Illini basketball program will be judged moving forward.

So will Thomas, who cleaned house by firing his three-highest paid coaches in the last four months. His replacements — Groce, football coach Tim Beckman and women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant — are Thomas’ footprint in a year of massive change.

“It wasn’t necessarily how I would have scripted it,’’ Thomas said. “It’s been unique. I’m excited about the new coaches we have on board and leading us to success.’’

After first bidding for Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens and seeing other coaches fall off the list, the Illini went with Groce. He was this season’s mid-major rising star after leading the Bobcats to the Sweet 16 before an overtime loss to top-seeded North Carolina in the Midwest Regional semifinals last week.

With Thomas working behind closed doors and a search firm making any leaks even more unlikely, there was more speculation over the previous two weeks than real information.

Groce wasn’t a popular name earlier in the week, but Illini fans appeared ready to wait and see what he can do as a recruiter and coach on the sidelines.

Already nicknamed “MAC’’ Thomas by his critics for fishing the same pond — Beckman was hired from Toledo — Thomas apparently hadn’t talked with trustee James Montgomery, who was pushing for an African-American hire. Thomas, meanwhile, said he remained in contact with board of trustees chairman Chris Kennedy.

“Other board members have been supportive in how the process was playing out and in myself in leading that process,’’ Thomas said.

A search that apparently started with diversity as a priority ended with Thomas’ third white male head coach hired in the last four months.

“It wasn’t any different than any other search,’’ Thomas said. “Any time you go through the process, you want a quality pool of candidates and a diverse pool of candidates. That’s important to me and important to the school. We did that. At the end of the day, I think we hired the best coach.’’

Smart’s disinterest in the job didn’t keep the Illini from a list of viable candidates, Thomas said.

“I don’t think, as it played out, it affected the pool of candidates and people we were interested in,’’ Thomas said. “There’s a high level of interest in this position. It’s got to be mutual interest and got to be a fit.’’

Groce said he was contacted Sunday, interviewed Monday and negotiated on Tuesday and Wednesday before accepting the offer Wednesday evening. Groce hadn’t been sitting through this process for the 20 days since Thomas fired Weber.

Make no mistake. Groce will be judged as the latest hire. And with his three high-profile coaches in place, so will Thomas.
    
John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977. Follow him Twitter at @JohnSupinie.