After a three week search, the llinois men’s basketball program has their new leader. John Groce, the head coach at Ohio University since 2008, agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year deal in Champaign that will pay him around $1.4 million annually.
Far from the first candidate – or second, third or fourth for that matter – Groce is all but ready to embark on the “opportunity of a lifetime.” During his introduction at Assembly Hall Thursday, the Danville, Ind., native spoke of Big Ten tradition and about memories of watching the 1989 Flying Illini team that came oh so close to a national title.
Deep down, most members of Illini Nation preferred VCU’s Shaka Smart or Butler’s Brad Stevens. They don’t buy into the bald Indiana boy that donned a blue Illini cap for his entire presser. However, this writer is excited to get the Groce era underway. After all, he deserves a chance to prove you wrong.
“There’s always skeptics in everything in life,” said Groce in response to a question about his hire. “If you don’t have thick skin in this profession, you’re in trouble. You can’t please everybody, but you have to do what’s right.”
In Groce, Illinois gets a young, passionate coach whose point guards are always in attack mode. His teams play fast, cause lots of turnovers and their bread and butter is the “drive-and-kick” to open perimeter shooters. Groce’s system will be a nice change of pace from Bruce Weber’s (motionless) motion offense, which didn’t play into the strengths of his athletically gifted roster. In a more free-flowing transitional game, Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard could really thrive. And what better style of play to appeal to young Chicago high school stars that have consistently left the state for uptempo programs like North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis.
The combination of incredible recruiting skills and intense coaching principles make Groce a program builder. He’s built and maintained strong pipelines with AAU circuits in Indiana and Ohio since becoming a Thad Matta protégé back in 2000. And thanks to the success of Chicago product (and Groce recruit) D.J. Cooper in two of the last three tournaments, the dominos in the Windy City might fall faster than you think. You would also have to believe Groce is smart enough to hire an assistant with Chicago Public League ties. Of course, it didn’t hurt that former Buckeye star and Chicago native Evan Turner sang Groce’s praises this week.
“Coach Groce’s offense is legit. Built for guards. The big ten is going to get even better in the future. … the Illini will have no problems getting Chicago players,” Turner tweeted on Tuesday.
Labeled the “flavor of the NCAA tournament” by pundits, Groce’s next mission will be to bring Illinois basketball back to the national forefront. It does baffle me though that without one recruiting trip, let alone a practice or game, that critics have already labeled Groce’s hire as a failure for Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
Why the gross reaction?
One could argue that Groce has a better résumé than former Illini head coach Bill Self had circa 2000. Sure, he lacks the Final Four experience that Smart and Stevens have, but did either of them serve as a lead recruiter in their short careers? At Ohio State, Groce successfully won the wars for Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, B.J. Mullens and Deshaun Thomas. All those players did was help the Buckeyes to two Final Fours and four Big Ten titles in a six year span.
Winning has been contagious everywhere Groce has been. Through 18 seasons on collegiate sidelines, he has tasted postseason play 16 times. He’s been a part of multiple conference championships, two Elite Eights and the 2007 Final Four. In four seasons at the helm at Ohio, Groce posted an 85-56 record with two MAC tournament titles, an upset of Georgetown in the 2010 NCAAs and a Sweet 16 run this past tournament with upset wins over Michigan and South Florida before falling to No. 1 seeded North Carolina in overtime.
Groce will undoubtedly hit the ground running with a chip the size of Champaign County on his shoulder. I want to root for Groce, a Midwestern boy that smiled so hard at his introduction, he unleashed more dimples than I thought were humanly possible. The effervescent underdog throughout the Illinois coaching search, Groce has paid his dues and many respected minds believe he’s ready for a shot at a power conference program. After all, he was cutting his coaching teeth at his alma mater when Smart and Stevens were piecing together plans for prom.
Tabbed as the “last resort” hire for Illinois, Groce will likely let his results do the talking. But Illini Nation needs to rally around him as a new era of basketball commences in Champaign. Those lucrative offers that Smart and Stevens rejected, leave those in the past. Besides, if Groce can replicate his success in March – 15-5 record over the last three years – Illinois will have hit this signing out of the park. Over that same period of time, Smart was 18-4, Stevens 15-2 and Bruce Weber 5-10.
Quite ironic how a couple extra wins in March is the perceived difference between “can’t-miss” and “last resort,” isn’t it? If Groce had guided the Bobcats to a Final Four, this hire would certainly be a slam dunk in the eyes of most. On the bright side, Illinois will continue to get better players than VCU and Butler. And I applaud Groce for being the only one willing to step up to the challenges of the Big Ten and attempt to mold those players into a unified band of brothers.
Here’s to John Groce, the newest member of the Illini family. Here’s to his beloved coffee and chicken wings. Here’s to fast breaks and great guards. And here’s to hoping that our biggest worry in three years is a contract extension, not a termination.