Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Former athletes from Illinois eye coaching selection

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In the aftermath of a rash of coaching changes in college football, the most encouraging news of the week was a letter written by 62 former University of Illinois athletes.

The letter, addressed to the athletics director, Ron Guenther, offered a list of experienced minority candidates for the football coach's job at Illinois. The letter was written in late November after Ron Turner was fired as the coach, and a copy of it was released this week in reaction to Illinois' hiring of Ron Zook, the former University of Florida coach who was fired in midseason.

The signers, consisting of black and white former University of Illinois football and basketball players, said in interviews that they felt that the university's administration violated the spirit of a selection process that was designed to give minority candidates a fair opportunity to become the head football coach.

What they suspect is that the job was all but promised to Zook, who is white, in the middle of the interviewing process.

"Because of our letter, Illinois put together a process that it had never before had in place," said Eric Rouse, who played football for the Illini in the 1970s. Illinois began with 20 candidates, which was reduced to seven and then three before Zook was chosen.

"Somewhere in the middle, a decision may have been or may not -- they say everything was open, no offers were given, but it smells funny," Rouse said. "But the fact is, this shows that if we band together, at least they'll give us a process."

Neither the interim chancellor, Richard Herman, nor Guenther was available for comment Friday. "We had specific needs, and coach Zook met those needs," said Robin Kaler, the interim associate chancellor for university communications.

I'm not sure what they could say, though. The university's record of hiring African-American coaches speaks for itself.

In a separate letter to the chancellor, Dino Pollock, who played football for Illinois in the 1980s, said: "There are 139 full-time jobs listed on the site and tied to the athletic budget. I counted nine African-Americans among the 139 which includes assistant coaches, administration and only one black head coach, in men's track."

He added that more than 70 percent of the athletic budget was derived from football revenues and 15 to 18 percent from men's basketball.

"We all know the dominant composition of the players in those two revenue sports," Pollock said. "So what we have is young black men being the economic fuel for the engine that is DIA" -- the division of intercollegiate athletics.

Pollock added, "The message is abundantly clear, send your black child to Illinois to run, jump, dance and dunk but don't expect to use your degree or playing experience to administer and lead athletics, for that is a province solely reserved for whites. "

The group's letter came at a time when hundreds of African-American athletes have finished their professional football careers and are coming of age as assistants in the collegiate and pro ranks.

Rouse said the list of signees represented three decades of University of Illinois athletes.

"I would love that every black athlete from every university in the country to do exactly what we did," he said Friday from Arizona, where he is an account executive for Eli Lilly.

Rouse added, "I'm still getting people calling me and saying, `This is great, I want to hear more."'

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