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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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Jerry Kill speaks with reporters on in the Stadium Club at Saluki Stadium on April 26 in Carbondale.

Jerry Kill, the man now in charge of Saluki athletics, promised to hit the ground running when he assumed the jump two weeks ago, has, not-surprisingly, kept his word.

Less than two weeks in the corner office at Lingle Hall, Kill hired Grant Williams as the first women’s soccer coach in SIU history. Granted, Kill wasn’t personally responsible for the hire. Shortly before his dismissal, former athletic director Tommy Bell said a hiring was imminent.

Rather than starting a search from scratch, Kill trusted those in charge of the search and brought Williams aboard.

If only the rest of the issues Kill faces were that easy.

To be perfectly honest, Kill did not inherit a department in disarray. He isn’t faced with raising millions of dollars to build a new football stadium, a track facility and remodel the baseball stadium. And, none of the athletic teams are in dire straits.

And, adding another layer of brutal honesty, there is only so much Kill will be able to accomplish.

Kill, like Bell before him, will be operating under serious financial constraints. The recent two-year state budget standoff put long-range planning on hold, leaving some programs to raise money on their own. In his initial press conference, Kill expressed his surprise that some of SIU’s programs experience success considering their operating budgets.

Then, there is the elephant in the room — men’s basketball.

While Barry Hinson’s team has two 20-win seasons in the last three years, the Salukis have not won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, nor made an NIT or NCAA tournament during his tenure. The lack of postseason appearances and mediocre attendance has a vocal contingent of SIU fans calling for a change.

The disgruntled fans want butts in the seats, an upgraded schedule and mid-March basketball games.

Next year will be crucial for Hinson and his staff. Virtually everyone is back from last year. The team will be laden with upperclassmen. The prospects for postseason play are better than they have been in a decade.

However, the devil is in the details.

Just a day or two before Bell’s dismissal, we had a lengthy conversation about scheduling. Like Paul Kowalczyk, Mario Moccia, Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and Chris Lowery before him, Bell decried the difficulty of scheduling at the mid-major level.

In the Weber-Painter days, top tier programs avoided the Salukis because a victory, especially at SIU, was hardly a lock. Now, major programs avoid SIU because of a mediocre RPI. SIU’s RPI was under 100 much of last year, so some scheduling upgrades are at least possible.

The second issue is butts in the seats.

Again, this problem isn’t limited to basketball. Football attendance has remained stagnant.

It is my contention that there is a hard-core base of 4,000 Saluki fans. They will attend football and basketball games solely out of allegiance to the university. Those people, for the most part, are still finding their way to the games.

Nothing other than winning will bring the bandwagon jumpers to the stadium or the Arena.

The one area that needs to be addressed in some fashion is student attendance, or lack thereof. Each year the freshman class attends the first football game en masse. Each year the students seem engaged in the game and entertained.

Yet, most never return.

The raucous Dawg Pound at the Arena is a fond memory. There were a few games last year when the student section was alive and well, but it seemed to have more to do with giveaways than actual basketball.

Again, in all honesty, that problem is not limited to SIU.

These are interesting times indeed at Lingle Hall.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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