What’s next for UIC?

By now, if you’re a new and loyal follower of PantherU or happen to stumble across a fan message board for a Horizon League school, you’re well aware that Jimmy Collins has left the Flames for retirement.  Unlike his last leave, he has left no doubt as to whether or not this is permanent.  I’m a Packer fan, so I know that until that position is filled, UIC fans need to wait with bated breath or #4 might be running out of that tunnel…errr, Jimmy Collins could be walking out of the locker room.

Jimmy Collins when he took the UIC job

I’m about 95% sure, however, that this is the end of the JC era at UIC.  There is no way a coach can leave three months before practice starts and not hurt the team, but in the long run this is the best thing for both parties.  Leaving on his own terms, Jimmy Collins does not soil his reputation on campus and in the city, and that’s good.  He deserves that.  UIC, on the other hand, can go out and get the coach they want, albeit from a much smaller pool than had he left in April, but more on that later.

Reading the comments on the UIC fan board, I understand where a lot of them are coming from.  In essence, Collins has had the team handcuffed for at least three years now.  The amount of defections from the Flames the last few years has made Milwaukee’s 2007-08 season look tame.  But they shouldn’t throw stones at Jimmy Collins for the end of his tenure.

Instead, they should be honoring him.  Let’s face it; Collins has done the school no favors by sticking around a decent amount of time longer than he should have.  But that doesn’t change the fact that before Jimmy came along, the Flames were barely a D-I program.  Since then, he’s taken them to four postseason appearances, including three NCAA tourney stops.  He is the all-time wins leader at UIC, and his players are some of the best the school has ever had: Cedric Banks, Josh Mayo, Scott Vandermeer, Martell Bailey, Elliott Poole, the list goes on.

I don’t think you can name the court after the coach, since he never won a game in the NCAA tournament.  But some recognition of coach Collins would be nice; he took them places they’ve never been, and remains a UIC guy first and foremost.

The program, on the other hand, is reeling.  The idea of Collins continuing to coach even into this next season was enough to douse a lot of Flames.  But with the retirement of their formidable coach, they have a pretty great opportunity.  Athletic Director Jim Schmidt is staring at the biggest test of his career: finding the coach that can take UIC to the next level.

For prospective coaches, UIC is a hell of an opportunity.  DePaul, for decades, was the queen bee in a city that produces a sickening amount of talent.  Except for one glorious year in the mid-80’s, Loyola basketball has largely been irrelevant.  Northwestern and Chicago State have never been to the tournament, although the Wildcats have gotten close recently.  Every team has had their difficulties, but no team has taken charge and been the torch-bearer for the city.  Get it?  Take the torch and run with it, Flames.

UIC has an advantage that the other schools in the city don’t have (save for CSU), and that’s the fact that they are a public school.  UIC has decent admission standards, but dynamite players from the Chicago Public League that won’t be able to get in at DePaul, Loyola, or Northwestern can find a home in the Pavilion.

The Flames just lost Tracy Dildy to the head coaching job at Chicago State, and he’s wasted no time in recruiting the CPL heavily.  Dildy is armed with a very nice arena (read the description from their athletics website, it’s priceless: “…will make this facility the best that the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois has ever seen.”), a relatively clean roster, and notoriously lax academic requirements.  He has the opportunity to make CSU the premier program in Chicago…

Please.  Tracy Dildy spent the last couple years at UIC, and once it was clear to him that he wasn’t the heir apparent anymore, he took the CSU job.  I hope he does well; fans of Chicago State may have many things said to them, but you can’t deny that they’re loyal, and that kind of loyalty deserves some results.  But let’s get real – Dildy’s facing an uphill battle.  UIC has been there before, they have the more prestigious school, and they are the biggest in Illinois this side of UC.  Add in the on-campus arena with major recent upgrades, and the Flames are one great coach away from being a contender by 2012-13.

DePaul was pushed to hire a coach with significant ties to the CPL, but shied away from the city and chose Oliver Purnell from Clemson.  While he’s a great hire, one has to wonder whether or not he can get DePaul successful in a conference that boasts 15 teams ahead of him on the curve.  Look, Jerry Wainwright, while not perfect, is not a bad coach.  In many respects, DePaul is a bad job.  They bolted C-USA for a league they can’t compete in, occupy an arena that they can’t get students in, and spend a significant amount of money less than basketball-centric schools like Marquette and Georgetown do.

What UIC needs to find now is a coach that can recruit Chicago and the rest of the country evenly.  They need a coach who can formulate a good game plan, hires assistants that can do a decent scout, and become an ambassador for the program in the UIC population and the school in the Chicago population.  Basically, everything that Big D of the UIC Flames board says.  He’s infinitely more knowledgable on the UIC situation than I am, and his post, directed at AD Jim Schmidt, was impeccable.

So who is the next head coach of the UIC Flames?  The names I hear most frequently are decent.  Ernie Kent and Gene Cross are both coming off of firings at Oregon and Toledo, respectively, and I wouldn’t want to go that direction if I’m a UIC fan.  Mark Miller or Bryant Lowe, the two remaining assistants, would absolutely be a step in the wrong direction.  Collins did great things for the school, but the last thing they need is to continue with the tree that has been dying the last few years.  However, I believe that Dildy’s move is a sign that Schmidt wants to move away from Collins disciples.

Big Ten assistants very well could do the trick…I better say that because that’s the well we dug our coach out of.  Jerrance Howard and Jay Price from Illinois, Vince Taylor from Minnesota, and Howard Moore from Wisconsin are all listed as candidates.  But I’m going to put in two names.  One, everyone has thought of:

Could UIC look to former Illini assistant Webster?

Tracy Webster spent the better part of early 2010 as the interim head coach after Jerry Wainwright was fired by DePaul.  Before his tenure with the Blue Demons, Webster has made stops at Kentucky, Illinois, Purdue, and Ball State since graduating from UW-Madison in 1994.

From 2001-2003, Webster worked at Ball State for current Indiana assistant Tim Buckley.  He spent one season on Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue before spending several years at Illinois.  It was there, as an assistant to UWM alum Bruce Weber, that Webster helped bounce the Milwaukee Panthers in the Sweet 16 in 2005.  That could throw a little fuel on the fire, but who am I kidding, our fans are too blindly in love with Bucky to despise the former captain of the Badgers.

Webster would be a wonderful hire.  He has the Chicago connections, he has been a head coach-in-waiting for several years, and he’s a likable guy that the UIC fan base could adore.  But somewhere, there’s a former head coach that could turn into a dark horse candidate for the Flames.

As much as UIC fans and Milwaukee fans and Wright State fans may hate to say it, the Butler Way has certainly carved its niche much like the Green Bay Way did in the 1990’s under Dick Bennett.  Brad Stevens is one of the best young coaches in the country, some would argue THE best.  And he learned it all at the knee of…

Todd Lickliter.  I know what you’re thinking.  This guy?  He was a decent head coach at Butler, but no one can remove the stains of 2003-04 and 2004-05 from the record books.  The coach for two of Butler’s worst seasons in the decade, however, was also the guy who coached A.J. Graves and Mike Green to the Sweet 16.  Stevens’ near-national title was enough to get the Butler people to pony up the cash, but Lickliter’s Sweet 16 netted him a high-paying job at perennial Big Ten mid-level Iowa.

Lickliter could be roaming the sidelines of the Horizon League again.

He didn’t do a lot there, but the fact of the matter is that like DePaul, Iowa isn’t the most wanted job on the market.  Unlike DePaul, where they decided to invest in basketball with Purnell, Iowa hasn’t fully supported its basketball program since Dr. Tom Davis left.  Rumors are rumors, but when word got around that Steve Alford had raised enough money to build a $26 million practice arena and was denied because the powers that be didn’t want money to come out of the football program, that’s a tip.  Alford never got the support he needed to turn Iowa into a powerhouse.  The Hawkeyes, since his departure, gave the same low level of help to Lickliter, and got lesser results.  Meanwhile, Steve Alford wouldn’t take the Iowa job for quadruple the money he’s making at New Mexico.

At Iowa, football is king, and Lickliter could never have truly succeeded with that kind of distant fan base.  UIC, on the other hand, kicked out hockey, the only program that truly could rival the support for basketball.  Baseball and men’s soccer are big with the Flames, but if Lickliter could get the UIC community to buy into their own version of the Butler Way, the Flames could have something seriously special on their hands.

One thing I know is this. At this stage in the summer, coaching staffs are nearly full.  Teams are getting ready for the fall semester.  UIC should have a bare-bones talent pool to pick from, but they don’t.  They have a truly great group of coaches that are vying for the position of head coach at the biggest university in Chicago.

And that should make everyone else in the Horizon League a little queasy to hear.

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