Mike Thomas, it’s pretty simple.
You have a chance to go from this:
Has a program that needs an image makeover ever been presented with such a tailor-made opportunity?
I know you have been slow to warm up to the idea of Reggie Theus, Mike. Your fan base has been, too.
Let Reggie take care of the latter part. By the time the introductory press conference is over, this lifelong playa will have the Illini world in a frenzy. When the university’s all-time wins leader, Lou Henson, offers his reasons why Reggie is the answer, they will echo loud and true.
You see, Lou isn’t a guy trying to promote a former assistant, admirable as those motivations can sometimes be. Lou simply wants the best for Illinois basketball. Having seen Theus take Lou’s other love, New Mexico State, from Henson himself in 2005 and turn the Aggies around dramatically, Lou saw Reggie’s good coaching firsthand.
It was an admirable thing Coach Henson did, guiding the Aggies for $1 a year in the wake of Neil McCarthy’s mess. But Henson’s health issues and other factors took NMSU off the rails, to the tune of six wins the year the Illini were amassing 37.
Theus, fresh off Rick Pitino’s staff at that same St. Louis Final Four, coaxed a 16-14 season out of NMSU in Year 1. He was up to 25 wins and an NCAA bid in Year 2. Then the NBA called. Well, sort of the NBA. It was Sacramento, with a roster roughly equivalent to Florida’s at the time. Theus ostensibly failed with the Kings, despite improving them compared to the year before he arrived. He didn’t survive a second season there, like so many NBA coaches don’t.
But enough of the history lesson, anyway.
What Theus means to Illinois is tangible, immediate and exactly what the doctor ordered.
Start with Jabari Parker, who will take his place alongside Derek Harper and Marcus Liberty as the biggest recruiting coups the school has seen. Theus isn’t a lock to snare Jabari, but having known Sonny Parker since the days of their summer games 30 years ago, he’s as close as it gets. (The one lock is that Illinois, without Theus, won’t sniff Parker’s services.)
Next step: An hour in the office with Meyers Leonard, telling him what he might well know, deep down, and what is true. It goes something like this:
“Meyers, you’re too unique of a talent to crawl into the league unsure of yourself, a 50/50 proposition to ever sign a second contract. Does Patrick O’Bryant ring a bell? Didn’t think so. NBA execs told him he’d be lottery, too, and he was. Taken 9th in 2006 by the Warriors. The former Bradley center was in the D-League by midseason of his rookie year, got shipped to Boston, fell out of the league.
“You can tiptoe in now and be B.J. Mullens, a bit part on a 5-50 team after getting dumped by the team that drafted him. Or you can listen to me, an NBA all-star and coach, about what it takes to survive. You can get stronger, learn real post moves, be part of a winner, and barge into that league a year from now as a sure-fire Top 10 pick. Odds go way up that a team is far more invested in you, and you’re more mature and a better player, and you have a 15-year career that matters.
“Your choice. Worried about an injury? News flash: There are no career-ending knee injuries anymore. That went out with Danny Manning. People return from ACLs in 6 months now, and are good as new in 18.”
From there, Theus pulls in more top-flight Chicagoans, largely because of a lifetime of relationships in the city of his first and best NBA playing days. He has known Michael Irvin, son and AAU Fire heir of the late, great Mac Irvin, since he was 20.
The Irvins (Nick, too) won’t just hand every player to Reggie Theus. They don’t have the power if they wanted to. But they will encourage Fire players to consider Illinois strongly and not have their hands out. Each case will be its own in the future, but you start with more than a fighting chance.
You don’t want to find out where you start, Mr. Thomas, if you never interview Theus and trot in some random, elevated mid-major guy. Or worse, let Duke play you a fool and use you as their bullpen for Chris Collins to get his arm loose for the day Krzyzewski hangs ‘em up.
What about Theus’ coaching style? Well, he played for the greatest basketball mind still drawing breath, Jerry Tarkanian. Coached under Pitino. These are two giants who thrive on defensive pressure, score off it, but don’t rely on it entirely like that Flavor of the Month 34-year-old who turned you down the other day.
Hey, I like Shaka Smart like the next guy. Think he’s a fine human being of unbridled enthusiasm who loves his players and whose players love him. But I feared his system — one basketball expert called it “a high school offense and high school defense” — would fall down under the counter-moves of Big Ten giants such as Izzo, Ryan, Matta and the like.
No matter. That’s over. The abundant pining for Smart by Illini Nation will have to turn into something else.
You fear a reaction of “Reggie Theus? What the hell?” And you’re right. Nobody ever offers a reason they don’t want Theus, but it is strangely fashionable for message-board denizens to spout about what desperation he would constitute.
Trust me, they’re fickle. With all the people behind Reggie — Henson, Pitino, Jerry Sloan, many more — goofy fan reaction will last maybe a day, probably more like an hour.
This hire is for 12 or 15 years. The second of those, and maybe even the third, probably involves Jabari Parker playing for your university.
All 12 or 15 involve a coach who likes uptempo basketball, but adjusts to his personnel. ADJUSTS! Did you hear that!? It can be done.
And what personnel it will be. Think a dapper, Hollywood actor who was an NBA All-Star and coached in the league as recently as last season will be good in a living room? God bless John Groce and Gregg Marshall — basketball genius Brad Stevens, even — but I think I’ll try to win Chicago back with Reggie.
“I’m uptempo. I’m NBA. I’m engaging. I can coach. I have the right Chicago friends, and they trust me to do right by their kids. Wanna play for me?”
That’s the opportunity you have, Mike Thomas. A guy who wants the job more than any of these others you might be trying to woo.
He won’t say no.
You shouldn’t either.