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Illinois AD Mike Thomas interviews Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst

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Updated: January 1, 2012 8:20AM

Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach were the names that kept popping up in connection with the Illinois coaching job on Tuesday.

A source familiar with the national coaching landscape pointed toward that trio, while discounting speculation about possible candidates from the Mid-American and Big East conferences.

‘‘It’s natural to speculate about those leagues, but I can’t see it at all,’’ the source said. ‘‘I don’t think they’re real candidates.’’

It’s looking like new athletic director Mike Thomas might not be as far along as his speedy dismissal of Ron Zook indicated, so stay tuned. On the other hand, he might be delivering on his promise to take a stealthy approach to his first important hire at Illinois.

Thomas reportedly flew to Madison, Wis., on Monday night to interview Chryst, while Sumlin and Leach were keeping low profiles.

At this point, though, low profiles could mean there’s no interest — or something’s up. And an interview with Chryst might mean genuine interest, or it might be a courtesy to a neighboring Big Ten school and its legendary athletic director, Barry Alvarez.

Two other names that keep popping up are Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Narduzzi is said to be a solid recruiter as well as a strong coach. Monken, a Wheaton native, guides one of the nation’s most potent offenses and has recruited well in suburban Chicago.

The job posting for ‘‘head varsity coach, football’’ showed up on Illinois’ online human-resources listings Tuesday. It said the closing date for applications is next Tuesday, but it was not clear if policy requires a longer period before the job is filled.

While Leach is the hottest name in coaching, a source indicated that he appears more interested in the UCLA or Arizona State jobs. Another source wondered if Thomas would be comfortable with Leach’s maverick ways.

Chryst has a well-deserved reputation as an offensive coach, but his lack of recruiting credentials could be a drawback.

Meanwhile, Sumlin, 47, doesn’t have Leach’s box-office appeal but also is regarded as a gifted offensive mind. With a victory against Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game Saturday, Sumlin will have No. 7 Houston, which is 12-0, tracking for a BCS bowl berth.

An Indianapolis native and former Purdue linebacker, Sumlin was an assistant to Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. He also has been a Minnesota and Purdue assistant.

Houston is in talks with Sumlin, who makes $1 million to $1.2 million a year, about an extension.

Whether he stays at Houston or leaves, Sumlin, like Leach, is likely to have options that call into serious question whether he would want to come to Illinois.

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