Illinois goes nuts for John Groce despite getting 2nd-tier candidate

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New Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce speaks with Illinois fan Reeda Charis, of Champaign, Ill., after his introductory news conference, Thursday, March 29, 2012, in Champaign. Groce is replacing the fired Bruce Weber after compiling a 85-56 overall record and 34-30 in MAC games at Ohio. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Stephen Haas) MANDATORY CREDIT

CHAMPAIGN – You had to be here to fully appreciate it.

Illinois erected a platform that stood about six feet above the Assembly Hall floor Thursday. It meant that when John Groce, the school’s new men’s basketball coach, stood at a lectern on that platform, he loomed like a dean of discipline over reporters, who were sitting right below at orchestra-pit level. Beyond the media were about 200 orange- or blue-clad fans. The only way they could’ve been more excited is if someone had presented them with scientific proof that Illinois was what they knew it to be in their hearts: just about the greatest thing ever!

That would explain the standing ovations, plural, for Groce.

Illinois held a news conference that did a fantastic imitation of a pep rally. It’s how a second-tier candidate was met with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect the Second Coming to receive.

Groce paused for five seconds after being asked if he understood why there was skepticism about his hiring away from the adoring crowd. It was hard to blame him. Wasn’t this supposed to be a coronation?

“There’s always skeptics in everything in life,” he finally said. “… If you don’t have thick skin in this profession, you’re in trouble.”

That brought on a round of applause from the audience.

A guy from Smile Politely magazine (really) was next, and he prefaced his question with, “I’m sure you want to prove all these skeptics in the Chicago area wrong …”

I was sure that would bring on more cheering, if not a burning at the stake of the Chicago media in attendance, but it didn’t. Very disappointing.

A few of us were saying weeks ago that the Illinois coaching job was not nearly the plum position the program’s supporters insisted it was. Lots of people didn’t want to hear it.

But the proof was the man standing in front of a microphone. Admit it: Most of you had no idea who Groce was until his name popped up on the Illini’s radar two weeks ago. And once you learned he coached at Ohio University, you still had no idea how to pronounce his last name (sounds like “gross”).

Don’t feel bad. I had no idea, either.

I should have this disclaimer memorized by now: Groce could turn out to be the greatest coach Illinois has ever had. Many of the most successful coaches had to start somewhere small before they moved up.

But it tells you something about where the program is when there isn’t a mad scramble among coaches to get the job.

“The national pundits, many of them, before this process started, they said, hey, it may not be a top-five program, but I think you’ve heard others say, it’s probably a top-10, definitely a top-15 program,” athletic director Mike Thomas said. “I believe that.”

When did they ease up on the controlled-substance laws in Champaign?

Thomas called much of what had been reported during the coaching search “fiction.” Time will tell about that, but the nonfiction part is black and white: Groce comes from the Mid-American Conference, where he had a 34-30 record and some success in the NCAA tournament, including a Sweet 16 appearance this season. Thomas made offers to Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens and got turned down. Depending on which report you read, Thomas made strong pushes for two to six coaches before going the Ohio U. route.

Groce signed a five-year contract that will average $1.4 million a year, well below the $2.5 million a year Illinois would have paid the more-heralded Smart and Stevens.

Groce hit all the right notes. He talked about growing up in Danville, Ind., 107 miles from Champaign. He talked about listening to Big Ten games on his grandmother’s transistor radio.

He mentioned the Orange Krush, Illinois’ zany student cheering section.

“I thought to myself, Illinois: Why not?” he said. “Why can’t we become a standard of excellence amongst those teams in the Big Ten, competing for championships? … The answer was, we can.”

He’s right. There’s no reason Illinois shouldn’t be competing for titles, but you could say the same thing about most every Big Ten school. It’s up to Groce to prove he can be Tom Izzo. Until then, it’s all talk.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt he can recruit,” Thomas said. “You talk to people in this business who know college basketball, they’ll tell you he’s one of the best recruiters in the country. That’s where it starts. You’ve got to get players.”

That, of course, brings us to the Chicago Public League, where some of the coaches aren’t overly enthused with Illinois’ hire.

Groce will have to win them over even though, in a normal world, he would only have to win over kids.

But that unpleasantness is for another day. Thursday was all about hope and possibility. And clapping. Lots of clapping.

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