CHAMPAIGN — The search continued for Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. After Houston coach Kevin Sumlin became the big name Tuesday in the hunt to fill the vacant Illini football coaching job, it cooled Wednesday, and Illinois extended the deadline for the job posting until 11:59 p.m. today from the original deadline to apply on Tuesday.
CHAMPAIGN — The search continued for Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
After Houston coach Kevin Sumlin became the big name Tuesday in the hunt to fill the vacant Illini football coaching job, it cooled Wednesday, and Illinois extended the deadline for the job posting until 11:59 p.m. today from the original deadline to apply on Tuesday.
Thus, the Illini won’t be making any announcements on a coach until Friday at the earliest.
Sumlin appeared to be Illinois’ first choice, but he’s now expected to land at Texas A&M.
Another name that was receiving more attention for Illinois late Wednesday night was Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson.
While there was no other real news on the coaching search, Illini junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks and forced fumbles, was named the Hendricks Award winner as the nation’s top college defensive end.
Otherwise, everyone kept hunting for information on the Illini coaching search kept tight by Thomas, who kept any leaks of information surprisingly minimal.
Extending the deadline isn’t unusual on such a quick search, Illinois athletic department spokesman Kent Brown said.
Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken made a home visit Wednesday afternoon with Rochester senior quarterback West Lunt, who gave the Cowboys a verbal commitment last summer. Monken gave no indication that he had a job interview with Illinois while in central Illinois, then left to make another home visit in the St. Louis area.
It’s unclear if he had any more contact with the Illini.
Illinois (6-6) plays UCLA (6-7) in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 (2:30 p.m., ESPN) in San Francisco. Interim coach Vic Koenning will lead the Illini through bowl practice Thursday afternoon. There was no reason to believe he would seek the defensive coordinator position at Arkansas, where coach Bobby Petrino has an opening.
Former Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino left the Illini Monday to return to the same position at Arkansas after Garrick McGee left the Razorbacks to take the head coaching job at Alabama-Birmingham. Petrino also was a finalist for that job.
Thomas has a background of hiring candidates who were already head coaches. At Cincinnati, Thomas twice hired football coaches from the Mid-American Conference. Toledo coach Tim Beckman, therefore, is a name that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Things change quickly. According to an ESPN report, Arizona State pulled a job offer after SMU’s June Jones had accepted and the two sides were hammering out contractual details.
Mercilus made some news for Illinois, becoming the first major national award winner for the Illini since Dana Howard (1994) and Kevin Hardy (1995) earned the Butkus Award as the top college linebacker. He began the season as a human-interest story after losing part of a finger in a weight-room accident last spring, but Mercilus quickly became a playmaker by following directions and trying to show the coaches he knew his responsibilities.
“He’s steady Eddie,’’ said Koenning, who serves as the Illini defensive coordinator.
Mercilus has 14.5 sacks and needs two more to break the single-season school record of 16 set by Simeon Rice in 1994. He also set a Big Ten record with nine forced fumbles and needs one more to tie the NCAA record. Mercilus also ranks sixth in the nation with 19.5 tackles for a loss.
The award made up for the surprising Big Ten vote, when Mercilus wasn’t named the league’s defensive lineman of the year.
Mercilus also is finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the national defensive player of the year and was already named a first team All-America selection by the American Football Coaches Association and a first team all-Big Ten selection.
John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.