It’s about the mark you leave

Andy Shadid (front row, left), Jake Hurst (second from left) and the 2014 Irish.

Andy Shadid (front row, left), Jake Hurst (second from left) and the 2014 Irish.

Both times Illinois had the “best” college basketball team in the country, I was in the building to watch the Illini not win the national championship.

The first time was just some sick joke akin to being around Cardinals fans all the time. That was in 1989, when I had to watch Michigan — sort of the Niedermeyer frat guy of Big Ten sports — complete some fairytale run because the coach who led the Wolverines to a pair of resounding losses to the Flyin’ Illini inexplicably thought Arizona State was a better job than U-M. So a guy who can coach, Steve Fisher, took over in time for the NCAAs, and the gust of fresh air blew the heretofore underachieving Wolverines all the way to the title.

Not important to today’s discussion.

The second time, you all know, was in 2005, and I was  charged with writing a column off the title game. When North Carolina had won, with a rather nondescript team for its powerhouse program, and Illinois had not, with a once-in-a-generation team for its never-quite-blueblood program, regret should have been the dominant emotion.

The column, however, talked about how we couldn’t be mad at the Illini because a few shots didn’t go in.  They had come back from 13 down at halftime (pretty sure it was 13), tied it, and all-America guards had good looks from 3 in the waning moments. The shots just didn’t go in.

Now, as time goes on, regret rears its head. It’d be really nice to no longer be the “best program without a national title.”

You remember that Rashad McCants — shirtless, for some reason — had the gall to dis Deron Williams in the postgame handshake. And you know, of course,  that nary a GPA on the floor in white that night was legit, and no one is sure where McCants, Sean May, Ray Felton or Marvin Williams play in the NBA anymore, if at all.

And if you’re me, you’d rather have been 2005 Illinois than 2005 North Carolina.

This isn’t  sour grapes. I know they have the banner.  Not trying to take it from them.

I just know that Dee Brown resonates a decade later. And Deron Williams is a dream. And that 29-0 start with all that passing and all those road wins, and the record-tying 37 wins in a year, and the Arizona comeback in the regional final that  Big Ten Network still can’t replay enough … it’s all a life experience, an indelible memory, and it’s not different in any appreciable way in my brain because a bully of a program had a few more points on the final night.

Which leads this tale, at long last, to the 2014 Peoria Notre Dame football team.

Be clear, there is no  parallel of cheesiness or malfeasance in the conqueror of Notre Dame. Lemont has not sold its soul  to winning in any way resembling what we know of U-M or UNC sports. Lemont is simply a public high school from the town where Cog Hill is, that has a marvelous team and coach, and came to Peoria and proved it.

Lemont 32, Notre Dame 25. Pot’s right, as my fellow reporter Lonnie Schwindenhammer likes to declare at a poker game. Correct winner, correct score, no disputes here.

The parallel is with the fallen.  I can feel already how I’ll remember these Irish in 10 years, and the feeling is good. Much like the mark Richwoods made in three straight years of mammoth home playoff wins on Kendrick Foster’s watch,  I will remember the wins.  In Richwoods’ case, I can barely recall who beat them each year.

In Notre Dame’s, I will recall the out game, because it was the dogfight my son Tommy and I have wanted to see all year. Because we know these kids, and we knew that while a dozen blowout  wins are nice, their true excellence could not be displayed until they were pushed.

Let’s start with Andy Shadid. Can we agree he’s the greatest thing ever to happen to Notre Dame football? Do we need to scan the 27 years of the school to declare that? Please.

Tommy offered the observation on the morning of the Lemont game that Andy is still getting better. Can’t argue with that. In week two of the playoffs, he had a career high of 263 yards (I think; I’m not looking up any facts, because I’m going to act like all the other bloggers now).

The next week, the opponent is way better, and Shadid drops five touchdowns on East St. Louis. None of those scoring runs were as special as one that I know I’ll remember in my mind’s eye for years: a scamper for about 18  yards, maybe 20 some (again, specifics … don’t need ’em). It was at a point of the game when ESL had tied it and its crowd was out-cheering the home side and ND was reeling on the field.

Andy was down after about 2 yards. But no. Ran backward for a few steps, then gang-tackled after a gain of maybe 8. Only getting started. Now he breaks free and is re-engaged by two tacklers, and with the ball threatening to pop out, carries them several strides down his own team’s sideline.  I don’t know if a foursome of ESL tacklers ultimately got him to the ground or he decided a fumble would be too critical then so he lived to fight another down.

That’s half-facetious on the going down on purpose. But it’s possible. Because in addition to being the most talented player on every field he ever ran out on, Shadid is that special star athlete who is more locked in mentally than anyone else, too.

His run against ESL changed the mood in the entire stadium. Soon, ND had a 35-point second half and a 22-point win.

Against Lemont, he went to his coach and demanded he get the ball after a fumble by a teammate left Notre Dame in a 19-7 hole while its star had far less than his  proper share of touches.

Next series? Seven straight Shadid runs — 8, 8 and 8 yards to start. Suddenly an Irish O-line that wasn’t moving a stellar Lemont front was able to produce holes. This time Shadid had changed the mood of the huddle first, then the stadium.

A Mount Rushmore prep athlete for me, and I’ve seen 40 years of them. A lifelong mental image of Shadid’s unique, into-the-middle-of-the-field cuts (everyone else seeks sidelines) is augmented now by this ESL run, this Lemont series and his interception with 1:31 left that gave his team a chance to overcome  a two-touchdown deficit over the last 3 minutes.

They didn’t quite do it, and I know it matters to them, because they wanted to win state. But it doesn’t matter to me.

Because I remember running into Darren Hurst at Haddad’s (the grocery) four-plus years ago, and him making sure Tommy was going to Notre Dame and going out for football. Because we have a special group, Darren said, too classy to point out that his son, Jake — the single best linebacker I have seen in Peoria, save possibly his cousin, Nick Mangieri — was a cornerstone of that special.

Jake was unforgivably snubbed this week when the all-state teams came out. Tommy told me he gave Jake sort of, what, condolences? And Jake said, “I’m not worried about me. I just feel bad for Andy.”

Unimaginably, Shadid was left off an all-state team for which he is the obvious captain.

Team after team drops the cliche that they’re not worried about who gets the credit. Hurst’s words — and I know him enough to know there was nothing fake about  them — are living it.

They are why this Notre Dame team is burned in my lifetime tapestry of sports watching. Brandon Vonachen, David Shadid and DeMarco Washington would be a very righteous trio of three best players on a team.  They fell in line behind the legendary (and they will be legendary; give it time) Shadid/Hurst duo.

Guys like Austin Swanson, Ben Barkley, Jordan Thierer, George Rothan, JT Jackson-Hohmann, Jack Fiddes and Forbes meant that Darren Hurst, who always knows what he’s talking about, by the way, knew what he was talking about in the coffee/cereal aisle in West Peoria on some 2010 day.

So trailblazing was the Class of ’15, in fact, that Notre Dame was a victim of its own success. A school infamous for never being able to have football remotely keep pace with soccer and cross country in the fall found itself in Class 6A because success from the previous two seasons, with these kids a major part of it, made the IHSA multiply ND’s enrollment to the max. They do that to football “powers,” with no regard for irony.

Whine if you will about private  schools’ advantage in football playoffs, and the evidence is ample. But non-recruiting Notre Dame and its 787 students just lost to a school of 1,401.

CLICHE ALERT: They didn’t really lose. They ran out of time and downs, didn’t advance. I realize they keep score at these things, and Lemont deservedly is headed to Champaign.

But I remember Haddad’s, and theorizing with Darren Hurst that this class could do something special, something Notre Dame  has not seen.

We can all agree that box was checked.

They went there wanting to be memorable. They’re done now. And they achieved indelible.

— Bill Liesse


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CST’s Winter Playhouse: Think inside ‘The Box’

Peoria has a playhouse that for years has staged Tony Award-winning shows, for about the cost of a movie.

And it feels like it’s a secret.

The Corn Stock Winter Playhouse is an intimate space, and indoor space, and that itself seems to be widely unknown. So famous is Corn Stock for staging its summer plays under a tent in Upper Bradley Park that far too many casual theater-goers, when told of, say, a February production at the Winter Playhouse, react by asking, “Isn’t it cold in a tent in the wintertime?”

No, Central Illinois. You should know that Corn Stock has long since had a building in the park. It houses a 40×40-foot square theater, roughly 45 seats on each of four sides, from which patrons could literally reach out and touch the performers (but we’d rather you refrained).

It is theater in the round (perhaps the only similarity to Tent shows in the summer), inside a cozy, little box.

It provides a theater-going experience that no place else in the area can provide. The play-selection committee consistently finds edgier, racier and deeper material than you get in your typical musicals at Eastlight, Peoria Players and Corn Stock outside.

Often, touchy subjects are addressed, and addressed well. This is why these plays win Tonys and Pulitzers. It might be mental illness. It might be homophobia. Family strife. Even bestiality and the limits of societal norms.

The subject matter lends itself to audience reaction, and as such, Corn Stock offers “Talk Backs” with directors, cast and even visiting experts after most of these shows.

This is theater that makes you feel. You will definitely be made to think. Inside “The Box.”

Predominately straight plays are staged at the CST Winter Playhouse, for a cost of only 10 bucks. Musicals are a few dollars more, and you can expect one per season. The two most recent — “Next to Normal” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — are both triple Tony winners.

Of the last 23 Tony winners for Best Play on Broadway, more than a third have been staged over the last half-dozen seasons at the Playhouse. Myriad other Tony-nominated shows dot the bill, with titles you know such as “Frost/Nixon” and “The Rabbit Hole.” Another, “Lieutenant of Inishmore,” is on this season’s card (March 20-21 and 26-29).

Give it a try. The season runs from the fall to the spring, breaking for the holidays. Comedy, drama, musical? All on the slate.

And there are cookies!


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Consider Yourself Lucky if You Catch ‘Oliver!’

A guy is doing pretty well if he can, say, bench press his own weight.
Meet Jake Trueblood. A 12-year-old who looks a couple years away from needing a bathroom scale with three digits, little Jake entered “Oliver!” in Scene 5 and immediately lifted a packed Peoria Players Theatre on opening night. For a little while — the duration of “Consider Yourself,” at least — this delightful Dodger seemed to carry the show on his tiny shoulders.
This is not rare in any staging of one of musical theater’s most enduring classics. Nor is it to say the first four scenes were lacking in director Bryan Blanks’ presentation of these Dickens characters. Many a stage has been stolen by the Dodger in the 54 years since Lionel Bart first set Dickens’ dark and melancholy Oliver Twist to music. And the swift-moving Trueblood, with his booming if not-yet-changed voice and comedic instincts beyond his years, was as artful as you’d ever want to see in portraying a character whose name is entrenched in our culture’s lexicon.
With the play’s energy level so distinctly lifted, the Dodger threw it over to Fagin, perhaps an even more iconic character in theater history. Chip Joyce, once a prodigy in these parts along the lines of Trueblood and Julien Rousseau, who played the title character, had his own grand entrance. Soon the excellent choreography of “Consider Yourself” was being matched, maybe topped, in the show-stopping “Pick Pocket.”
At this point, you knew you were attending a truly top-shelf local production.
Fagin is one of literature’s all-time creeps, a criminal who has young boys do his dirty work and rewards them, at times, in gin. He can be portrayed to have no redeeming qualities, or more as an almost lovable, two-bit con artist who carries some affection for the dozen or so kids he harbors in his lair.
Joyce went the latter route. A benevolence ran through his performance amid nefarious words and actions, and his fondness for Oliver was palpable from the start. He was in good voice, lost within exceptional makeup work by Amy Williams, and was impressive physically as well, with something of a pirate’s limp and unfailingly hunched shoulders.
Dickens made Fagin Jewish, despite a fairly well-supported theory that the character was based on a black Londoner who in 1832 made the newspapers after his arrest for harboring young pickpocket boys. Dickens, famed for basing characters on people he read about in the police blotter, later regretted the Jewish characterization. Joyce eschewed it altogether, which was just as well.
A third stellar entrance ensued in PPT’s Oliver when Ayana Pankey appeared as Nancy, who seemingly sings you through the middle of the show. A tragic figure in how she is abused by Bill Sykes, an implied graduate of Fagin’s lair, Nancy is nonetheless effervescent. She shows it in “Fine Life,” which she comes out singing, and the renowned drinking song “Oom-pah-pah” to open Act II.
When those two were finished, Deric Kimler brought all the required menace to Sykes in “My Name.” It was back to Pankey, resplendent in red, for her big solo, “As Long as He Needs Me.” When her spirited effort elicited perhaps the evening’s biggest ovation, it was readily apparent Blanks knows how to cast or he knows how to pull the most out of his performers.
Or, most likely, both.
Rousseau, for me, was an acquired taste. He acted well from the start, often wordlessly in the beginning. He did fine with “Where is Love,” but solos by 11-year-old boys are seldom awe-inspiring. Then, as he moved through this script, and the infamous bumps in Oliver’s road from two forms of glorified slavery to Fagin’s dank clutches, from being arrested to saved, this young boy from Ridgeview Elementary really understood the subtleties of the character.
Oliver has spunk, but it gets so drown by the Dodger’s that Oliver’s naivete takes over amid Fagin’s intimidating kitchen. He’s willing to learn their illicit methods, but you never get the sense it’s by choice. You see Oliver as ultimately good, and you’re right. There’s a reason everyone else onstage is drawn to Oliver, and if Rousseau were not so genuinely appealing, it wouldn’t work.
Blanks’ thorough immersion into virtually all his projects is evident here. For me, oddly enough, it showed up in the props. Blanks and prop manager Julie Lonteen filled this mid-19th century set with a huge stream of appropriate beds, trunks, baby carriages, lanterns, walking sticks, you name it. It complemented Dawn Kocher’s exhaustive costuming work and gave the whole production an air of completeness.
Oliver! is well cast, up and down. The reliable Curt Rowden is solid as Mr. Brumble. You even get PPT president Jim Babrowski in the funny doctor’s role. Joyce, Pankey and Kimler are terrific.
But the kids make the show.
— Bill Liesse

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Winter season stays hot with “Red”

Clark Rians, as abstract impressionist Mark Rothko, begins and ends "Red" in the Adirondack chair in his studio.

Clark Rians, as abstract impressionist Mark Rothko, begins and ends “Red” in the Adirondack chair in his studio.

By Bill Liesse

Photos by Blake Stubbs/Greenroom Photography (

Mark Rothko sat in an Adirondack chair, looking upstage at his own paintings, house lights still up, as audience members found their seats.
That was in the spring of 2010, at the Golden Theater in New York, when the Tony Award-winning run of “Red” was unfortunately short because star Alfred Molina was obligated to the infinitely less fulfilling, one would guess, task of filming one of the “Law and Order” series that summer in Los Angeles.
The Rothko in Peoria’s version of Red, Clark Rians, has no such Hollywood calling. Alas, Corn Stock Winter Playhouse’s staging of the show also will be too brief, a sensation local theater lovers have had before during a stellar season brewing at CST’s indoor space in Upper Bradley Park.
Director Victoria Kapanjie  recreates the original’s opening by having Rothko enter the intimate center space with the lights still up, and sit in the Adirondack.  One can only guess if the twentysomethings who trod the performance area after Rians was seated — including one man who left and returned with two coffees — were part of Corn Stock’s ample planning for this show, or just a lucky coincidence.
In any event, Rians demands your full attention without saying a word, fake smoking a fake cigarette while his 1950s-era phonograph plays. For roughly 80 minutes of performance time, Rians never lets go.  You hang on every word he says and hears from  the play’s only other character,  Rothko’s assistant, Ken.IMG_0027
Which leads us to the apprehension  you might have about Red. It’s two guys in a straight play, talking about art. How interesting can it be?
How about enrapturing? How about, for one viewer at least, it creating a palpable adrenaline rush by how doggone interesting it is?
That is Kapanjie’s Red. The first-time director let her actors simply be Rothko and Ken, and be them they were.  Cliche as it might be to say, you’ll forget their acting. You start with a 99.9995% mastery of a massive dialogue challenge, but it’s much more than that.
John Logan’s script is about  Rothko’s relationship with Ken, yes, but it’s mostly about Rothko’s thoughts on all things Rothko: his paintings, to “whom” he continually gives human characteristics;  his worthy audience, or lack thereof; his place in history as they spoke, which was the late Fifties as Rothko worked on his famed commission for the Four Seasons restaurant; and, of course, his legacy.
Sometime before declaring, “This is all about me,”  Rothko gives the not-so-wide-eyed Ken the obligatory opening salvos. I am not  your  this or your that, father, friend or teacher, etc. He is certainly self-obsessed, and one of Ken’s increasingly challenging retorts points out Rothko’s lack of interest in anything Ken.
Yet Rians said he was determined to reflect an undertone of warmth to Rothko, a trait Rians is convinced the artist possessed, even if he might be slow to admit it. To say Rians succeeded in that goal and all other aspects of his portrayal would be an  understatement as tragic as Rothko’s outlook on life. (“There is tragedy in every brush stroke.”)
You watch Red knowing you are seeing an artist who would end his own life a dozen years hence. Logan’s words and Rians’ passion exude that subtext well before (and after) Rothko ever utters the words “When I kill myself …”
An average or less actor opposite Rothko would, at best, make Ken a foil and at worst take away from Rians’ brilliant lead. That is part of the reason Andrew Jon Rhodenbaugh is so impressive as Ken. As was intended by Logan, Rhodenbaugh makes Ken a young man of his own convictions, a few of his own demons, yet a little uncertain of his life’s direction.
IMG_0025Little more than an endentured servant, Ken challenges Rothko, but never in a manner you wouldn’t believe. He turns the tables on the “I am not your teacher, etc.” speech  by never particularly viewing Rothko as a mentor. In fact, while clearly wanting the great artist to embrace him a little more, he seems to want this  first for the character of his elder.  Ken wants Rothko to be a better Rothko, and you might conclude that he succeeds.
You should have no doubt that Rhodenbaugh understands every beautiful layer of text and subtext.
You needn’t know the work that went into Red to find it gratifying, but it’s all the more so if you do. In a new twist on method acting, Rians spent months preparing the massive canvases for the set. Someone had to; they are virtual characters in the play.
The promotions arm of CST put together an art show to accompany the play, with smashing results.  Some 20 local artists have works of all kinds on display,  much of it for sale.  It is worth your time to arrive well before the 7:30 curtain time (2:30 on Sunday) and peruse the scores of works in the Winter Playhouse’s dance studio.
Or, given the relative brevity of the play — it was presented as a single act on Broadway, and doesn’t really need the 15-minute intermission it gets here — check out the art afterward. Coffee donated by the new Broken Tree Coffee house (Sheridan and Main in the old Running Central building) is available along with other treats, and the director and actors are happy to mingle and talk about what makes “Red” great.
Hint: It’s them.

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January 12, 2013 · 5:33 pm

Eastlight brings “Les Mis” home

Courtesy of Eastlight Theatre

If you had to pick a local venue for the regional community-theater premier of Les Miserables, Eastlight would be it.

The technical superiority of the operation housed inside East Peoria High School is consistent and sometimes vast. While Corn Stock is the only site to offer theater in the round, Eastlight does not battle the limitations of CST’s outdoor space. While Peoria Players’ stage has great height and depth (and that fun trap door which PPT often uses well), the high school’s perfectly proportioned auditorium is more comfortable and offers more bells and whistles.

Mostly, though, Eastlight has Steve Cordle. The technical director behind every show east of the river, Cordle is tireless, extremely talented and thinks big. And few shows require one to think bigger than Les Mis, the epic’s epic, the most successful show in the history of Broadway and the West End by a number of definitions.

Eastlight took on this daunting endeavour (English spelling, thank you) starting  June 22. The first weekend continues with a Saturday night show and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. The run picks up with 7:30 p.m. shows Wednesday through Saturday, June 27-30.

Seven performances. You’ll probably wish there were more.

Your author and his wife were privileged to attend a sneak preview of the final dress rehearsal on Thursday. The overwhelming takeaway was “What voices!” In a world in which you may choose among myriad renditions of this classic at your local record store, you’d be delighted to have this company on CD in  your car for as long as cars still come with disc players.

The sheer pull of the show surely attracted massive talent to auditions for this regional premier. But by employing the always-smiling, universally liked Robin Hunt to be director, Eastlight ensured its talent conglomeration would be all it could be.

Hunt unveils a delicious mix  of old reliables — honestly, who within 100 miles should be Madame Thenardier but Barb Couri? — and standouts new to our community. The latter classification includes no less than the show’s Fantine (Mary Kate Smith) and Eponine (Stephanie Myre), each making their Eastlight debut.

Smith, a Petersburg native who boasts a terrific Mary Magdalene at Springfield Muni’s Jesus Christ Superstar among her credits, started out a little quiet in “End of the Day” on Thursday but ultimately acted and sang her tragic part with great passion. Her dying scene was crafted exquisitely by Hunt.

Few characters in the history of the stage make you like them as much as Eponine, and Myre is an impeccable choice in this regard. A veteran of professional work in Chicago (as well as one of several voice teachers among this cast), Myre nails the show-stopping “On My Own” and offers stage movement of great grace while others’ is sometimes clunky.

Another of the vocal teachers is Jason Morris, who plays Javert. However Hunt unearthed him, Germantown Hills resident (and father of six) Morris regales us with first-class pipes and Javert’s requisite spite … after a 20-year hiatus from local stages. Few things are better than deeply talented, local residents being coerced to get back out there and remove the bushel from atop their bright light.

At the risk of going over more of key characters and turning this preview into a review, let’s skip ahead to Jean Valjean.

Roger Roemer, a likeable big guy who is physically perfect for the part, was an excellent thieving Valjean early and executed

Roger Roemer as Jean Valjean
(Photo by Jenny Parkhurst)

the bedside clash with Javert so well it was almost frightening (another feather in Hunt’s cap).

Roemer did strike me as perhaps having more of a “this is only rehearsal” approach than some during the middle of the show. Then came “Bring Him Home.” A song of heartstopping beauty, it tends to separate the wheat from the chaff among the brave men who presume to play this most demanding of lead roles.

Roemer killed it. Sensitive, beautifully paced … I can’t even keep my eyes dry writing about it a day later. The seminal moment of the evening for me. It took this Les Mis from a tad passionless — one can guess the all-but-empty theater didn’t help — to the emotional boxing match that it is.

My family will go back in part to see Jarod Hazzard perform his nice Marius. In part to further examine the wall-to-wall barricade for which Cordle’s team painstakingly acquired and placed items thrown out by EP residents over five-plus years of junk-removal days. Also, to see the nicely blocked and beautifully sung “Heart Full of Love.”

An aside on how big Cordle thinks: We see the other side of the barricade. Professional tours of this show don’t even aspire to such dimension. Spinning the middle portion of the three-part barricade on the stage’s renowned turntable, we get to actually see Gavroche climb down and pick the pockets of fallen soldiers from the opposition. When Enjolras dies over the barricade, he actually dies over the barricade, giant red flag and all.

Whatever your reasons or favorite parts of this almost unimaginably excellent work, you should go. For me, it’s enough knowing a “Bring Him Home” that precious is filling the air within minutes of my house. It’d be wrong to miss it.


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A Ricketty ride into super PAC world

Joe Ricketts’ political action plans should give us all a greater appreciation of John McCain.
Ricketts unwittingly rocked the political world Thursday when the New York Times revealed his super PAC’s plans to effectively sabotage the Democratic National Convention in September. At the center of the plan – yet to be finalized and ultimately subject to Ricketts’ approval – are television ads revisiting President Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
It’s virtually impossible to count the strategic holes in “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” Let’s just say the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen looks like a Wrigley Field brick wall by comparison.
Ricketts, of course, is the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs. That the family includes daughter Laura, a key fund-raising figure in the Obama reelection campaign, is but a small irony here. A seeing-eye single amid a barrage of extra-base inconsistencies and hypocritical home runs.
The big blow, of course, is that Ricketts is going after Chicago’s favorite son while his family asks Chicagoans to pony up for improvements to Wrigley. Crain’s Chicago Business’s Greg Hinz outlined the project’s costs, and the family’s bond and tax-break requests, late last month.
No, you’re not confusing things. The Ricketts family wants you to help fix Wrigley, and to do so needs the blessing of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And the family patriarch has a super PAC called Ending Spending Action Fund, and its proposal says, effectively, America doesn’t hate Obama enough.
According to Thursday’s Times story, the 53-page document “lament(s) that voters ‘still aren’t ready to hate this president,’ “ and Ricketts is upset with McCain for nixing an inflammatory Wright ad in 2008. “If the nation had seen that ad,” the Times quotes Ricketts as saying in the proposal, “they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”
Lest we conclude that Ricketts is this wantonly tone-deaf or arrogant, he did react quickly Thursday to the massive strategic blunder that is this document’s leak. Ricketts retreated via a statement from his camp that said, in part, “(this proposal) reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”
The statement concluded that the idea to run the Rev. Wright ads has been rejected.

In fact, statements are flying around everywhere and Emanuel is none too pleased. Hinz again.
Which brings us back to McCain. Maybe the 2008 Republican nominee isn’t “a crusty old politician who often seemed confused,” as the super PAC’s attack plan indicated.
Maybe the longtime Arizona senator had the foresight and political acumen to know what it took an embarrassing leak for Ricketts to see: That attacks on character, on either side, do little but lather up voters you already have locked up. And they can be counter-effective by causing resentment among those of us in the forgotten political middle.
And just maybe, the nation’s interests were better served before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which overturned much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Bill.
Because maybe unfettered spending by the founder and former CEO of TD Ameritrade has more to do with enabling the privatization of Social Security than it has to do with Jeremiah Wright’s views on race, much less Barack Obama’s.

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What Mike Thomas did and didn’t do

When Mike and Jenny Thomas were transitioning to Champaign-Urbana from Cincinnati, Lou Henson put them up in his house.

When a vacancy developed in the basketball-coaching seat from which Henson amassed the most wins in University of Illinois history, Lou had an outside-the-box suggestion to Thomas as to who should fill  it.

Thomas never interviewed that candidate.

What Thomas has done has been a hiring circus of historic proportions. The Bears’ “hiring” of Dave McGinnis will look  as smooth as an NHL sheet of ice by comparison.

So badly has Thomas crashed that the university arranged for a 3 p.m. press conference Tuesday to announce John Groce as coach and booked a flight to get Groce to Champaign from Athens, Ohio. Then had to call off said presser and flight when the day started shrinking and the Board of Trustees started rumbling.

Whether Thomas should have hired Reggie Theus is a matter of rather lively debate. We can agree that in better times, Illinois would have no need to turn to Theus, who is developing a persona of “the perpetual candidate” as he continues to try unsuccessfully to return to a college game in which he coached five years (2002-07), the first three under Rick Pitino at Louisville and the latter two as head man at New Mexico State.

Mike Thomas

How Thomas can look Henson in the eyes upon returning the keys and say that nothing could have come of a Theus interview? Well, that will be his problem. If he tries to con Henson by talking about the token moves that were made — a short phone interview between Theus and Thomas’ assistant; a phone call to ask a former employer about Theus (in which the review was glowing) after Thomas had reached out and essentially decided on John Groce — you can rest assured Henson won’t be fooled.

Also not fooled by those shady, cover-your-tracks maneuvers will be the BOT, as mentioned, as well as the greater Chicago amateur basketball scene.  Overcharacterized as (take your pick) crooks, boycotters, a single voice, bad coaches, etc., these mostly African-American coaches and AAU personnel know  a diversity sham when they see one.

The reality is Thomas made a run at one coach of mixed race, Shaka Smart, apparently leaked that reality for what many consider to be trustees-appeasement reasons, then concentrated on a string of white guys.

News reports provide a list of other African-American candidates as if to indicate Thomas worked tirelessly to remove Illinois from its embarrassing role as the rare BCS-conference school with zero coaches of color in its revenue-sports history. They mention Lorenzo Romar, who has been known to not be moving from Washington this late in his career. They did the same with Leonard Hamilton of Florida State, who is even older.

They even were clueless enough to mention Anthony Grant. Grant’s associate head coach at Alabama is Dan Hipsher, who was fired at Akron by one Mike Thomas in a move of maximum bitterness. It’d be a cold day in 2012 before Grant would have anything to do with Thomas.

We are not here to say Illinois had to hire an African-American coach. That kind of limitation is nonsense in any search.

We are here to question a search that landed on the latest mid-major white guy with a spotty record when an African-American with an equally impressive resume was ready to interview and never got the courtesy of that interview. At a time the program badly needed to be spiced up, Thomas provided brown sauce on beige food.

Basically, Thomas listened to a search firm from Atlanta but not his own constituency. The search-firm method is popular for all the wrong reasons, driven by plausible deniability. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart get to say “I haven’t talked to anyone from Illinois” and blah, blah.

What it prevents is Thomas getting in a room with one of those home-run hires and actually putting Illinois’ best foot forward. He could play a video of how crazy the Assembly Hall was a few short years ago, play audio of Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale calling the Orange Krush unmatched and the atmosphere being as good as there is in the country. He could point out Illinois is the winningest program in the nation’s historically co-best league (with the ACC). He could offer testimonials about the job (Seth Davis saying it is among the top few). He could assuage fears of the change in U of I presidents by talking about how universally liked Bob Easter is. He could point to CAA champ Drexel’s exclusion from the NCAA tournament or Butler not even getting an NIT call.

Did any of that happen? We’re left to doubt it.

The bad form out of the AD portends many gloomy days ahead as Illinois tries to recruit its own state. While Groce might earn the favor of Tai Streets’ Meanstreets AAU program, from which Ohio standout D.J. Cooper was launched, it likely will be a long, long time before Groce is accepted by the Chicago Fire. The Illinois Wolves, from which so many current Illini came, fall somewhere between. To say Fire chief Michael Irvin is upset about these developments is like saying one-time Groce recruiting coup Greg Oden has been known to get hurt from time to time.

In other words, Mike Thomas has found a way to alienate the University of Illinois from the robust recruiting classes of 2013 and 2014 in Chicago and the rest of Illinois. Sources say prize recruit Malcolm Hill is as good as gone.

He has found a coach who inexplicably has lost about half his games in a mess of a league that includes annual 20-loss programs Toledo, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Miami … pretty much all but Akron, Buffalo and Kent State. By doing that, Thomas has all but assured his interim head coach, Jerrance Howard, will leave his alma mater.

That in turn calls into question the verbal commitments of 2013 standouts Hill and Jalen James. It essentially ensures current center Meyers Leonard will leave for the NBA, a decision that was not the fait accompli that the Illini’s hometown press has made you believe all season with its relentless references to Leonard’s lottery status (which, in reality, is shaky).

Whether any or all of the incoming sophomores transfer out remains to be seen. It is feared Tracy Abrams will leave when Howard does, and that Mike Shaw and Myke Henry might follow. But those things are always said before the new coach gets a chance to talk to his new kids. A great deal of persuasion tends to take place in those meetings.

Any kind of legitimate research by Thomas of his actual constituency and playing field at Illinois would have told him that a Theus hire spelled extreme acceptance by Chicago, the best chance at retaining Leonard, the best chance at retaining Howard (short of a Buzz Williams coup), the best chance of James and Hill staying aboard, the best chance at major hauls in 2013 and 2014, the best chance of exciting revered alums in the media business, Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo … and thus the best chance to be really good really soon.

Thomas was too smart for all that. He acted without Henson’s input. Outside of the recommendations of Jerry Sloan, Rick Pitino and the aforementioned alumni. Instead, he found himself another MAC coach after underwhelming the world by going to that league for his football coach.

At least the MAC has a nice history of producing football coaching stars. It is utterly devoid of that history on the hardwood.

John Groce, your table is ready. Nobody from your new school is sitting at it, but it’s ready nonetheless.


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