Coaching carousel takes a break, makes for stability in 2013

In his first year at Illinois, athletic director Mike Thomas fancied himself Donald Trump. Bruce Weber, Ron Zook, Jolette Law: You’re fired.

However tumultuous this was to the athletes and assistant coaching staffs at the time, Illinois has moved on. Many sports now have head coaches firmly settled and starting the second year of their tenure as Illini.

Not all coaches who left during Thomas’ reign did so under compulsory conditions. Gavin Kennedy, who led the men’s cross-country unit for one season in 2011, merely decided to take a similar position at Ole Miss — though he was fired from Mississippi this past May.

Mike Turk, Illinois’ head track and field coach in charge of hiring for the cross-country program, moved quickly to nab rising star Jake Stewart. Stewart was the cross-country team’s fourth new coach in as many years. Talk about change. The fact that he has returned to lead the team in 2013 brings a kind of stability Illinois hasn’t had in the sport since legend Gary Wieneke was coaching.

With nine freshmen on his team, Stewart is poised to have an interesting year. Most of his athletes will be making the jump from high school to collegiate competition and acclimating themselves to Big Ten caliber expectations.

But Stewart is learning right along with them. He made the jump to Illinois after serving only one year at Purdue in a similar position. He rose quickly through the cross-country coaching ranks, becoming head coach at Illinois just seven years after graduating from his alma mater, Iona College, in 2005.

Matt Bollant, on the other hand, is a product of Thomas’ ‘Apprentice’-like firing extravaganza. 2013 marks the beginning of his second year as head coach for women’s basketball and hopefully a program revival. In 2012 he led Illinois to its first postseason appearance in three years and a winning record in the Big Ten.

The last time women’s basketball went over .500 in conference play, Nickelback was sitting pretty at the top of the charts and Ohio State won the national championship in football.

It would seem Illinois women’s basketball was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing year for humanity.

Though Bollant lost star forward Karisma Penn — as she is now playing for Italy’s top professional league after going undrafted — he returns veterans Amber Moore and Ivory Crawford.

Women’s basketball officially starts their season Nov. 8 against Bradley in Peoria, Ill.

And we all know about Tim Beckman and John Groce. Illinois football just beat a Cincinnati team that was supposed to rip them to shreds and Groce is a mean, lean, Starbucks-loving recruiting machine.

People across the country bashed Thomas for allegedly destroying Illinois athletics. Michigan State men’s basketball coach and long-time friend of Bruce Weber, Tom Izzo, even went so far as to publicly berate Thomas’ actions against Weber as sabotage. But maybe Thomas was right.

So maybe he’s the villain. But will it matter if Illinois starts seeing W’s?

Hopefully this year goes well and things start to stabilize for Illinois athletics, otherwise, give Thomas a bad toupee and a New York accent and he can start his own show — Illinois Apprentice — coming to Champaign this fall.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @arynbraun.