Chicago State athletic director; diligent basketball coaching search worth the wait

By Patrick Engel
Medill Reports

Chris Zorich knows the narrative that surrounded his three-month coaching search. He heard the criticism of his long hiring process and Chicago State’s lack of a men’s and women’s head basketball coach during the entire spring and summer evaluation periods. The first seven words he spoke while standing behind a podium Wednesday acknowledged it.

“This has been a long time coming,” Zorich said, grinning.

And he doesn’t care one bit about the criticism, because he says he’s found his ideal coaches.

Zorich introduced new men’s head coach Lance Irvin and women’s head coach Misty Opat at a press conference in the lobby of the Jones Convocation Center on campus Wednesday afternoon. These are Zorich’s first major hires since he took over as Chicago State’s athletic director in early May. He dismissed any concerns about filling the men’s job two weeks after the second-to-last Division I vacancy (Delaware State) found a head coach. He simply took the time he thought was needed.

“The idea that somebody is going to criticize me because I’m not doing something right and they’re not sitting in my shoes, it’s not a big deal to me,” Zorich said.

Zorich’s confidence aside, it’s rare for a college basketball team to go five months without a head coach. Chicago State’s men’s and women’s head coaching jobs had been vacant since mid-March, when the school fired Tracy Dildy and Angela Jackson. That was nearly two months before Zorich assumed his post.

Hiring a basketball coach in early August brings a wealth of challenges, the primary obstacle being the lost time in recruiting. Zorich insisted recruiting was never a concern for him while making the hires. It remains Irvin’s immediate challenge, though.

“You know it’s going to be tough, because we missed some major recruiting periods,” Irvin said. “But with my relationships, I hope to overcome them. But I’m not going to tell you it’s not going to be tough. That’s the reality of it.”

The April and July live periods have passed. The fall signing period for 2019 recruits is only three months away. And getting a strong first full recruiting class is important when undertaking a gargantuan turnaround effort of a team that has won just 13 games since the start of the 2015-16 season. Fall semester classes at Chicago State start on August 20, leaving Irvin with only about two weeks to get players for this season enrolled in time. Chicago State’s roster is still unfinished, since five players who saw major minutes last year either exhausted eligibility or pursued professional opportunities.

Irvin’s connections as a member of Chicago basketball’s unofficial royal family can help make up for that time. He’s more prepared for a time crunch because of his relationships in the Chicago area, where Chicago State has previously based its recruiting operations. He spent the last six years as an assistant coach to his brother, Nick, at Morgan Park High School, which won four state titles. Before that, he was a Division I assistant for nearly 20 years. He has deep connections in the Chicago area, in Illinois and beyond. He said after his introduction that he had a player from California call him to express interest in Chicago State.

“It’ll be easy for him to have some conversations and try to get some kids from these AAU programs and high schools,” Nick Irvin said.

While important, Zorich’s primary focus wasn’t finding a connected recruiter. He believes he found the same caring mentor in Lance Irvin that he had in his own former coaches. Nailing that part of the hire was worth extreme diligence and any amount of time for him. Wednesday, the former Notre Dame and Chicago Bears defensive tackle stood behind a podium and gushed about Irvin’s devotion to his players’ lives beyond the court. He shared a Tuesday impromptu encounter with Irvin while setting up the podium, dais and chairs for the press conference. Irvin strolled into the Jones Center lobby and told Zorich he had just chatted with a couple of the players and watched part of their shootaround.

“I asked him, ‘What are you doing here? You know this is tomorrow right?’” Zorich said. “He hadn’t officially stepped in that role yet, but there he is caring for these players.”

That was a non-negotiable quality of Zorich’s ideal candidate, because similar support in athletics helped him escape a rough childhood and become a college football legend and an NFL starter. Still, Zorich needs to find coaches who he thinks can produce on the court. He knows that’s the core of his job and wouldn’t have hired Irvin if he thought Irvin was incapable of winning.

“Obviously we have to win or we’re all going to get fired,” Zorich said, half-joking.

So why, then, would Zorich task his new hire with speeding up the recruiting process for two cycles in addition to the pre-existing difficulties and budge constraints Chicago State coaches face? It’s his job to put coaches in the best position to win, and on the surface, giving a new coach an abbreviated recruiting window isn’t doing that.

“I’ve been around success. But athletics doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t come from someone who cares,” Zorich said. “I want our players to remember Lance when they’re 40 or 50 years old, just like I remember the coaches that made a difference in my life. And I truly believe that our student-athletes will have that same experience with coach Irvin.”

Photo at Top: Chicago State athletic director Chris Zorich (left) introduces new Cougars’ head basketball coaches Misty Opat and Lance Irvin on Wednesday, August 8 (Patrick Engel/MEDILL).