Eddie Johnson, a familiar name in high school, college and professional basketball lore in Illinois, has tossed his hat into the ring for the newly vacated head coaching position at the University of Illinois.
Johnson, 52, insists his qualifications to succeed Bruce Weber go beyond his selection as a member of Illinois' All-Century Team and a 17-year career in the NBA. And he doesn't believe his lack of coaching experience at the college level should detract from his ability to build an elite program at his alma mater.
"I want to coach at Illinois," Johnson said. "This is my first opportunity to come out and say it. But (athletic director) Mike Thomas knows my desire. He has known for about a month. A lot of alumni know, too. I want to get an interview with him and go from there. He said he wanted to talk to me. I just want an equal opportunity and let the best man win.
"To me, Illinois is the best college job in the country. I can make a difference. I have observed the job since Lou Henson left. Some coaches have used the job as a steppingstone. I'm not a gypsy. It is time for an Illinois alum who has a passion for the game, someone who has a pedigree, to come in fresh and do it the right way."
Johnson, who currently is a broadcaster for Fox Sports Arizona, said he has an edge over other candidates because he is a motivator and communicator who can go into Chicago and make a bigger impact than anyone else and persuade 5-star players to commit to Illinois.
"Illinois has underachieved in the past because they haven't gotten 5-star players. They got good players but they didn't recruit 5-star players, the elite," he said. "Illinois isn't an elite program right now. If I got the opportunity, I would treat it that way.
"I'm fresh. I don't have an agenda. I have been around the game. I played over 2,000 games in the NBA. I've been around the game for the last 12 years as a coach, analyst and broadcaster. I have been positioning myself for this job for a long time."
In response to critics who argue he doesn't have any college coaching experience, Johnson responds by pointing out he has the same experience as Mark Jackson, now coach of the Golden State Warriors, and Fred Hoiberg, who is coaching at his alma mater Iowa State.
"My coaching experience comes from playing and observing and working with kids. When people ask where Eddie has been, where has he coached, I remind them that I have coached at two training academics for the last seven years and have been head coach of the USA team for the Adidas grassroots program for the last two years. I have had relationships with most of the best young players in the country, including (Simeon's) Jabari Parker and Shabazz Muhammad (the top-rated senior in the nation)."
To be successful at Illinois, to build an elite program, one of the top 20 in the nation, you must be able to recruit Chicago. Johnson grew up in Cabrini-Green and attended Westinghouse with Mark Aguirre in the late 1970s. He knows the way the game is played in the city.
"Over the last 30 years, more professional players have come from Chicago than any other city," he said. "But recruiting in Chicago has been a problem for Illinois, even when I played in 1977. I was the second guy (after Morgan Park's Levi Cobb) to go to Illinois at that time. Then (Crane's) Ken Norman, (Simeon's) Nick Anderson and (King's) Marcus Liberty followed.
"You have to feel confident that you can go into the Public League and look a young player in the eye and know I came from the same route. I can walk into any living room and sell my story. Today, kids want to know how to get to the next level. You have to have a system to do that, to improve their game.
"That's why John Calipari is so successful at Kentucky. He gets it. He has established a factory to the NBA. It's not about the 30 or 60 games a kid will play at Kentucky. It's about how he is preparing his kids to compete at the next level. That's what a kid wants to know."
Other candidates likely on Thomas' short list are Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, who has previous ties with Thomas at Akron; Kansas State coach Frank Martin, the Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2010; Duke assistant coach Chris Collins, who played at Glenbrook North and was Illinois' Mr. Basketball in 1992; and Reggie Theus, who played for the Chicago Bulls and coached at New Mexico State and the Sacramento Kings in the NBA.
"Coaching isn't rocket science," Johnson said. "The bottom line is if you don't have a commitment to the university, like Bruce Weber did, you won't be able to recruit for Illinois in Chicago. They will see that you aren't sincere. It's an Illinois town. You must get respect from the high school coaches. I don't have an agenda. The only reason I would come back is to have an opportunity to coach at my alma mater."
There has been speculation that Thomas will be pressured to hire an African-American coach. He thought he had one to replace football coach Ron Zook but Kevin Sumlin chose to stay at Texas A&M. When Thomas hired Tim Beckman from Toledo, he received criticism from two African-American members of the Illinois Board of Trustees.
"Does Illinois need to hire a black coach," Johnson said. "I don't know. They should just hire a good coach. But it is a great opportunity to make a difference and do something that hasn't been done before. It isn't a necessity but if it hasn't been done before, it is right to reach out and make a difference.
"I know (Thomas) wants Illinois to take off and do well. It is time to look in-house and look at people who have had success, who have allegiance to the school. I just want to get in a room with Mike Thomas and show him want I can do. The basketball program lacks leadership right now. They need to teach it. That is something I do right now."