Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, November 30, 2011

Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas hired two football coaches when he ran Cincinnati?s athletic department, looking to the MAC ranks on each occasion in first tabbing Brian Kelly from Central Michigan and then Butch Jones from the same school. But he?ll surely have an open mind in replacing Ron Zook.

I expect the next Illinois coach to have an offensive background and to be younger. And I don?t think the next coach necessarily has to have head coaching experience. Will Thomas give a serious look at minorities? The Big Ten has had just two African-American head coaches, and both were at Northwestern: Dennis Green and Francis Peay.

Here are my top candidates:

Paul Chryst, Wisconsin offensive coordinator. It has been reported that Thomas talked to Chryst on Monday about the job. Chryst, 46, has interviewed for head coach jobs at Oregon State and Purdue, while coming close to taking a job as quarterbacks coach with the Dallas Cowboys a few years ago. A Wisconsin grad who also has coached in the NFL, Chryst isn?t a dynamic personality but he?s unmatched as a schemer.

Larry Fedora, Southern Miss head coach. A top offensive mind that has made Southern Miss one of the top programs in C-USA in forging a 32-19 mark in four seasons and leading the Golden Eagles to the C-USA East title this year. Fedora has a magnetic personality, which makes him a deft recruiter. Zook actually hired Fedora to be offensive coordinator in 2005, but the 49-year-old Texas native quickly left for the same post at Oklahoma State.

Butch Jones, Cincinnati head coach. Of course, Thomas is familiar with Jones, who is having a banner second season with the Bearcats. Jones, 43, runs a dynamic offense and knows how to operate a program at a high level and build a strong staff. Jones is a native of Michigan who played at Ferris State and cut his teeth under Rich Rodriguez as receivers coach at West Virginia.

Todd Monken, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator: A native of Wheaton, Ill., who played at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., the 45-year-old Monken pushes the buttons on an explosive Cowboy offense that?s among the best in the nation. He also has extensive NFL experience and has worked at LSU. He?s ready.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State defensive coordinator. The fiery Narduzzi, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, who played at Rhode Island and Youngstown, has slowly made the Spartans into a defensive power. He knows his Xs and Ox, as the 45-year-old Narduzzi has learned much working for a defensive mind like Mark Dantonio dating back to their days at Cincinnati.

Kevin Sumlin, Houston. He?s this year?s "it" coach. And Thomas would be hailed an instant hero if he somehow could lure Sumlin, who is a perfect fit on so many levels. In addition to his glistening resume as a coach, Sumlin is a "Big Ten guy," having played and coached at Purdue and also been an assistant at Minnesota, where he met his wife. The cerebral Sumlin is coaching gold in that he learned much as an assistant under Bob Stoops, but he may have better options.

Kirby Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach. A former Illini defensive back under Mike White, Wilson has an extensive background in the NFL and college ranks. He has worked for some of the best football minds, including Dennis Green, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin. A native of southern California who was a junior-college recruit, the 50-year-old Wilson has myriad of nation-wide connections and is a personable recruiter.

OTHERS TO WATCH: Temple coach Steve Addazio; Toledo head coach Tim Beckman; Eastern Michigan head coach Ron English; Notre Dame defensive backs coach Chuck Martin; Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads; Western Kentucky head coach Willie Taggart; Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.