John Groce and a wild, crazy search for a coach

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By Joe Henricksen

The rumors over just who will be the next coach at Illinois are over. The debate where this program currently sits nationally doesn’t really matter today. The fact Illinois was not able to convince a group of high-profile coaches (or at least two) to take its job needs to be forgotten.

John Groce may not be the hire the fans anticipated when the Illinois job opened, and he may not have the résumé of the three previous coaches Illinois hired at the time they were brought to Champaign — Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber — but Illinois appears to have its coach. And regardless of whether he fits the “profile” of a coach people expected to replace Weber, Groce is regarded as a quality coach with some very strong attributes.

Sure, there are concerns. Groce’s 34-30 record in the Mid-American Conference in four years certainly isn’t an eye-opener in what is a far inferior mid-major conference in comparison to the Missouri Valley and Horizon League. The fact Ohio, which is considered by many to be the best job in the conference, has never finished higher than third in its division of the MAC under Groce opens questions. What it does show is just how much athletic directors at high-major schools continue to look at NCAA Tournament success.

And it’s not as if he rebuilt a struggling Ohio program or one that was even a middling MAC team. The Bobcats weren’t too shabby prior to Groce’s arrival, winning 20, 19, 19 and 21 games in the four years prior to his arrival in Athens, while actually winning 40 MAC games in those previous four years in comparison to Groce’s 34 MAC victories in his four seasons on the job.

In addition, his name recognition in Chicago is, well, he will have to work on that. Putting the right coaching staff together will help, maybe even be crucial. But much like Bill Self had to do when he was hired from Tulsa, Groce will need to go out and quickly endear himself to the people that matter in Chicago, the suburbs and around the state. That is done with a work ethic, energy, a personality and a little time. Groce appears to have many of those qualities. If Groce is a dynamic figure, if he is a people person with a personality and comes across as genuine, he will be just fine. And by all indications, if you look at his track record as a recruiter, he must have some of “it” in him.

But by listening to those around the state and hearing what they have to say, simply getting to know these people — and in a rapid-fire way — could be Groce’s biggest immediate challenge.

“I don’t know him,” says Mike Irvin, who runs the high-profile Mac Irvin Fire club program, which boasts the likes of Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Gavin Schilling and Sterling Brown among others. “Actually, I’ve never heard his name until the other day. So I guess I don’t have much to say about someone who I don’t have much information about. But I just don’t understand how you don’t bring in someone who at least people know. I just can’t figure this one out.”

Simeon coach Robert Smith, who could potentially be contacted regarding an assistant job at Illinois, says he doesn’t know or have a relationship with Groce, either. Asked if this would likely end any last hope Illinois had with Parker, the top prospect in the country, Smith said, “that’s a great possibility.”

“They [the Parkers] just don’t have any relationship at all with him,” says Smith, who won his third straight state championship earlier this month. “And that’s what is most important for Jabari and his family, the personal relationship he has with the coach.”

“I just think they are putting this guy in a tough situation,” Smith says about the hiring of Groce. “Maybe he will come in and overwhelm people, but I just don’t know him. Building relationships is huge, and that has to start from day one. But that’s going to be tough when you’re starting from scratch.”

Mike Mullins, who is head of the respected and talent-filled Illinois Wolves club program, is acquainted with Groce. Although Groce was not the lead recruiter of Wolves star Evan Turner when the St. Joseph star played with the Wolves, the two have crossed paths while Ohio State recruited Turner.

“He’s proved he’s an aggressive recruiter, is an astute evaluator of talent and has closed on that talent,” Mullins says of Groce. “He’s also proven he can coach. I hope people give him a fair shot. I know we will.”

Whitney Young’s Tyrone Slaughter is another prep coach of a loaded program in the Chicago Public League. And he’s another coach who has zero ties to Groce and has not dealt with him on the recruiting front. Slaughter now recognizes Groce, he says, but only from this year’s NCAA Tournament run.

“I didn’t know who he was until this year’s tournament,” says Slaughter of the former Ohio coach. “Like it is with any other college coach, it’s local. If a coach doesn’t have strong ties to Chicago, or in this case, really, any tie to Chicago, it’s a learning process for everyone. That takes time. Unfortunately, with where the program is right now, I don’t know if there is that time. We first have to find out what his vision is as the coach at Illinois.”

Slaughter, Smith and Irvin are all very interested to see just what Groce decides to do with his coaching staff. And, most importantly, if any of the staff will have some type of connection and established relationship with the prospects, families, coaches, movers and shakers in Chicago basketball?

“Optimally, a big part of this is going to be about what he plans to do with his staff,” says Slaughter.

All three — Smith, Slaughter and Irvin — believe it would greatly help close the gap between an outsider like Groce and Chicago basketball if there is a staff made up of coaches who players, coaches and families are familiar with. That’s especially true, and important, with the strong junior and sophomore classes in Illinois, who have established relationships with the programs and coaches that have recruited them, some since they were in junior high.

At this point, however, don’t dismiss Groce as a quality candidate. If you listen to Illinois fans over the past 24-48 hours it appears there is a complete meltdown as a result of how this coaching search has ended. Was the hire a little underwhelming? Initially, maybe. But the calls, texts and emails I received regarding Groce from Illinois fans were entertaining, but they were also pretty blinded and over-the-top. I realize the hire wasn’t the home run fans were seeking, maybe expecting, but I was like, “Yowza!!” when it came to the immediate reaction.

Then with the news of the on-again, off-again press conference, the back-and-forth innuendo regarding planes and scheduled flights between Athens and Champaign, along with rumors flying wildly that Groce-to-Illinois wasn’t completely done and was being held up, there was a subtle shift. Fans were disgusted with the process and felt empathy for Groce, who now likely emerges out of all this as a sympathetic figure.

We saw absolute venom thrown towards Bruce Weber in his final weeks as coach at Illinois. Now it’s already being directed at Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. Starting on Monday and throughout Tuesday I already felt bad for Groce – and he hadn’t even been officially named the head coach yet. Were there more sure-things out there than Groce? Yes, but … THEY DID NOT WANT THE JOB! (Well, except for Kansas State’s Frank Martin). Or, playing devil’s advocate and listening to some people in the business, how hard did Illinois really go after candidates not named Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens?

But it’s not about what Groce isn’t. And don’t be sad and gloomy over who the hire wasn’t. Remember, it’s not Groce’s fault Illinois was in the position it came to be in during this hiring search. And it’s not as if he hasn’t won anything or hasn’t been entrenched in high-level college basketball coaching. He has worked his way up the coaching ladder, including stops at North Carolina State (4 years), Butler (1 year), Xavier (3 years) and Ohio State (4 years) prior to his four years as head coach at Ohio. There are coaches in the MAC who are relieved Groce is getting out the league as he has the program on the upswing and poised to become better next season.

Was Groce the popular choice? No. While some fans gave Shaka Smart an 11 on a scale of 1-10 (Wait, who are we kidding? After being Shakatized for a week fans upped it to a 12 or 13 out of 10 despite the fact the wonderboy was NEVER coming to Illinois) and others gave Brad Stevens a 9 and threw solid 8’s at Anthony Grant and Buzz Williams, isn’t Groce at least a 6 or 6.5? Yes? No? Come on! And there have been plenty of other 6.5’s who have been hired in the past who have surpassed the initial lack of enthusiasm. Heck, Phil Jackson was probably a 5 or a 6 when he was hired to replace Doug Collins.

No one knows what Groce can become. Now is the time to give the guy a chance to succeed. He’s done nothing wrong. Maybe, just maybe, Groce can exceed the expectations that right now many fans have placed for him and the Illinois program. There are attributes Groce brings to the table that can be attractive if you can see through the shaka-stained-glass window. He wants to be at Illinois and he has strong midwest and Big Ten roots.

From the outside looking in, the biggest plus to Groce’s résumé was his ability to get his teams to play its best in big games, when the season mattered the most. On two occasions, once in 2010 and again this past season, Groce’s Bobcats won the MAC Tournament when they had to, when neither a bid to the NIT or NCAA Tournaments were realistic without winning the tournament.

In 2010 as a No. 14 seed, Ohio upset Georgetown in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, before falling to Tennessee 83-68 in the second round. This year the Bobcats were a No. 13 seed and stunned Michigan in the first round and beat No. 12 South Florida to reach the Sweet 16. Ohio then fell to North Carolina in overtime late last week.

He’s known as a worker, a coach who will be out and be seen on the recruiting trail. And that should not be under-appreciated from a head coach, especially at the high-major level. As one coach who is familiar with Groce’s work at Ohio said, “He will work his ass off recruiting.”

While securing top talent in Illinois will be imperative but not easy, maybe Illinois can tap into a new but pretty fertile recruiting ground in Ohio with his ties to the Buckeye state — and even in Indiana. In fact, when comparing Groce to one of the high-profile must-haves for Illinois fans, Brad Stevens, the Hoops Report actually thinks that, aside from name recognition, Groce is a better fit to recruit to Illinois than Stevens. He is a recruiter and considered to be an elite one when he was an assistant.

The first bit of recruiting Groce may need to do is to convince assistant coach Jerrance Howard to stay on board. There will be suitors for Howard. But Howard is just too good of a natural fit at Illinois and has too many ties to current players, committed players and prospects to let him get away.

Fans and naysayers can turn their noses up and complain about the “Chicago basketball people” throwing down an iron fist and demanding someone on staff be from Chicago or have some connection to the city and suburbs. But it just makes sense, especially if the head coach has so little name-recognition to begin with. After dealing with and talking to the major players in high school basketball in the city and suburbs for years, I truly believe every single one wants the local programs to do well, whether it’s Illinois, DePaul or Northwestern at the high-major level.

Whether it’s Jerrance Howard or a natural “Chicago guy” as an assistant — or both — it helps tremendously, especially to get on the fast-track with these Chicago basketball people. No, they shouldn’t run the show, nor do they, when it comes to hiring an assistant. But why wouldn’t they want someone they trust, respect and have a history with? It helps a new coach getting prospects on campus earlier and regularly. And it helps the Chicago basketball people to have one of “their guys” immediately vouch for the head coach, which again speeds up the relationship and recruiting progress.

After recruiting his staff, Groce can address keeping the personnel intact, which includes a roster loaded with young players in their first year at Illinois who are feeling a bit uneasy these days. Plus, Groce will have to do whatever he can to keep Class of 2013 commitments Malcolm Hill of Belleville East and Jalen James of LaLumiere Prep in Indiana in the fold. James has always seemed to be an “Illinois” recruit, while Hill is currently the Hoops Report’s No. 2 ranked prospect in the junior class.

Other quality characteristics coaches noted to the Hoops Report when talking about Groce was the fact he’s high-energy, ultra-intense and brings a whole lot of fire. Plus, he’s a player’s coach. He gives his team some freedom and allows for them to go and make plays. Expect to see plenty of drives and kicks and ball screens and isolations for the team’s best players to go do what they do best. Groce’s teams try to score off their defense and in transition.

He’s not Shaka. He’s not a minority hire. He’s not from a high-major. He’s not a Chicago guy or even an Illinois native. The hire isn’t going to win the “press conference” and won’t sell tickets immediately. And GroceBall isn’t exactly a catchy slogan for Illini hoops. But he can still be a great coach. And it’s a fresh start, a clean slate with an entirely new energy. Groce deserves backing from this point forward from everyone. Anything short of giving Groce a fair shot and allowing himself to showcase his abilities on the big stage, is being stubborn and shortsighted.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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