Introductory press conferences, particularly for institutions with a founded degree of self-worth as high as that of the University of Illinois, are generally reserved for several key emotions: joy, excitement, elation; the whole lot. Yet, as the Illinois Fighting Illini welcomed John Groce as the program's newest head basketball coach on Thursday afternoon, the Champaign air carried only a sense of relief. If this was a celebration of anything, it was the end of the hunt, not the capture itself. After many diehards lobbied for the dismissal of Bruce Weber for so long, it shouldn't have been like this. Then again, no one expected Illinois' coaching search to develop into the embarassing, all-out circus it ended up being.
Talk to the 20- and 30-somethings who populate this city and you'll likely have a hard time finding a non-alum who has the capacity to harbor sympathy for the Illini. If you didn't go there, you probably don't like them. But as A.D. Mike Thomas' coaching search turned into an open forum on rejection, those not basking in the wonders of schadenfreude had to feel at least a bit of empathy. After all, no fanbase should have to witness its most prized program get dropped down a peg in such a public manner.
By now, you know the story: after dismissing Weber, Illinois turned its sights to VCU coach Shaka Smart. They made their pitch with passion, not to mention gobs of money. Smart turned them down, even if a move to Champaign would have paid him around $2.5 million annually, a significant raise from the $800,000 he currently earns to coach the mid-major Rams. Thomas and the Illini seemed shocked, possibly even caught without a backup plan. The school sent out feelers to a number of coaches, from Alabama's Anthony Grant to Washington's Lorenzo Romar, with none willing to bite. Then came the news that the Illini had approached Butler coach Brad Stevens, a gesture doomed to fail from the initial phone call. Without a moment's notice, Illinois found itself without a lifeline.
At the beginning, there was debate over whether the head coaching gig at Illinois was a top 10 or top 15 job in the country. Now that it's over, it appears as if the search itself did more damage to the program's reputation than Weber could have done with another lifetime in charge.
Ohio Bobcats coach John Groce would eventually get the nod at Illinois, though even that wasn't as easy it should have been. There were canceled flights, canceled press conferences, and salary negotiations that, like everything else involved in Illinois' coaching search, ended up being played out for the world to see. Illinois does not work in the shadows. If nothing else, they are transparent, flaws and all. Now it's time to determine what Groce is: a consolation prize, or gift dropped from the skies to rescue a program with newly self-inflicted wounds.
For as embarrassing as Illinois' coaching search was -- and it really, really was -- it will all be forgotten if Groce wins. It's important to remember that people like me don't know a thing, but, man, Groce certainly seems like a nice fit in Champaign. If this is your sixth choice, the first five really must have been impressive.
Groce guided the Bobcats of Ohio to the Sweet 16 this season as a No. 13 seed. They were a missed free throw away from defeating premium basketball factory No. 1 North Carolina and advancing to the Elite Eight. Perhaps even more impressive is what Groce did before he took the Ohio job. As an assistant under Thad Matta -- first at Butler, then Xavier, then Ohio State -- Groce developed a reputation as an ace recruiter. He helped get McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA first round draft picks Greg Oden, Mike Conley and B.J. Mullens to Columbus. He's also young (just 40 years old), spirited, and seemingly eager to make the state forget that, oh yes, he was the Illini's sixth choice.
There's always a kicker, and here it is: as Groce's arrival became imminent, dozens of the area's top high school and AAU coaches looked on with what appears to be thorough disapproval. Chicago is a hotbed for hoops talent, and Illinois' recent woes can be traced back to Weber's inability to land prized local recruits Jon Scheyer, Julian Wright, and Derrick Rose. Groce might have strong ties to the basketball scenes in Ohio and Indiana, but if he wants to vault Illinois into the elite tier of college hoops, he'll need the best talent Chicago can produce.
Groce's first public exam comes early -- probably too early. Simeon Academy's Jabari Parker, who just finished his junior season, is the type of basketball player who comes around only, what, once every five or 10 years. He has been predestined for basketball greatness from an early age. So far as prognosticating the futures of 16 and 17 year old kids goes, he is as close to a sure thing as it gets. If not for an ill-founded rule preventing high school kids from entering the NBA Draft, Parker's recruitment would be a non-issue: he'd jump to the NBA after his senior year at Simeon and immediately become an NBA lottery pick. By all accounts, he is that good. Every program in the country wants him, and that includes Illinois. When Parker's AAU coach heard about the Illini's intention to hire Groce, though, it certainly painted a picture like Parker would be taking his services elsewhere.
"I got two words – good luck," said Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin, whose current players include nationally-ranked junior Jabari Parker and sophomore Jahlil Okafor. "I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I don’t know who he is. Really the past 4-5 years, we’ve had high-major players in our program, so we never crossed paths with him."
Truth be told, it would have been unlikely the Illini landed Parker even if they kept Weber, who has been in the forward's ear since he was in middle school. More truths: recruiting Chicago is a ruthless and often thankless endeavor. If this is what scared away Smart and Stevens, it's hard to blame them.
Anthony Davis will lead the Kentucky Wildcats into the Final Four on Saturday. As a high school player in Chicago last year, it was reported that his path to John Calipari's Wildcats may have been less than clean. There was an air of infidelity surrounding Rose's recruitment too, and even a lesser-though-still Top 100 recruit like UConn via East Aurora guard Ryan Boatright found his fair share of trouble with the NCAA this season, whether he was wrongfully persecuted or not.
Groce better have his Teflon on as he enters the grimy Chicago recruiting scene. After all, it's the next best thing to the bags of cash the Illini (presumably) will still be unwilling to offer top amateur players. No one is arguing Groce should break the rules, but be mindful of all this when Parker (who's recruiting has been clean, by all accounts) and others of his pedigree take their game to another campus.
John Groce has the markings of a excellent head coach. Personally, I believe the Illini might have lucked into a great fit after such a wearing search. But as soon as Parker puts on that Duke cap,
or DePaul cap, or Michigan State cap, Groce will come under fire, deserved or not. Groce's job is to get the next Jabari Parker, or at least it should be. The only way to do that is to stockpile wins. If that happens, the recruits will come and the memories of Illinois' shameful coaching search will dissipate. Killing two birds with a single stone is never easy, but neither is the task presented in front of Groce. If he can pull it off, the drawn out saga that led him to Illinois will soon be forgotten.