Your next Illini basketball coach: Ohio’s John Groce



It’s not official yet, but it’s looking very likely that Illini Nation will have to settle for their sixth choice in a head coaching candidate, a man with a 34-30 career record in the MAC.

Ohio Bobcats coach John Groce could be introduced as Bruce Weber’s successor in the next couple days. And he’s not a terrible hire, it just means that this basketball hiring process has been a complete failure up to this point.

I know that seems contradictory: hiring a decent candidate, when process is fiasco. Let me explain: Croce brings steak, but no sizzle. And maybe the Illini need that meat and potatoes right now over flash. The U.S.S. PR splash hire has sunk big time.

Before this process began, Seth Davis of CBS described the Illini job as “top ten nationally.” Consensus was top 15-20. Today, after getting rejected by two mid-major coaches, and a couple more with mediocre at best credentials, it barely looks top 50.

Here’s why, and also why Groce would actually be a great fit to fix the mess.


First, this is bad timing.

The resigning of former University of Illinois President Michael Hogan amidst corruption charges highlights the turmoil at the top of the University food chain. A complete mess at the highest level of administration turned off a few candidates, including Lorenzo Romar, who didn’t have much of a resume anyway.

The salesmanship of Illini A.D. Mike Thomas has to be called into question as well. Captain Hook, or better yet Captain Buyout has been striking out left and right, so one might want to already question what his contract buyout is? (Even though he just got here) Yes, he’s not responsible for the hot mess above him amongst his bosses, so don’t pin that on him. But why can’t he sell the programs better than this?

And what’s considered a main strength in the gig: access to Chicago, the public league and its vast talent resources actually turned out to be a weakness. Shaka showed serious apprehension about getting into the dirt, grime and slime of recruiting that world. Other coaches didn’t want to deal with the “street agents” and “AAU hangers-on” that are a staple of this very sticky situation.

But Groce was an assistant under Thad Matta at both Xavier and Ohio State. He’s a MAC guy, in touch with Thomas’ roots, and also from the conference Thomas reached into to find his football coach. And Groce can recruit. And he can recruit Chicago. He wasn’t the lead recruiter on Evan Turner, but he did help bring Mike Conley and Greg Oden to Ohio State; so a #1 overall, a #2 overall and a lottery pick- not bad for bringing in NBA level talent.

More on Groce from the Chicago Sun-Times:

As a 14th seed two years ago, Ohio stunned No. 3 seed Georgetown 97-83.

Groce, 40, doesn’t run complex stuff, but he has a reputation as a strong recruiter who’s proven himself in the muddy recruiting waters of Chicago. The team’s leading scorer and playmaker, 5-11 D.J. Cooper, is from Seton Academy, in South Holland.

Groce’s drawback? Like Tim Beckman, hired in December to replace Ron Zook as Illinois football coach, Groce probably won’t excite Illini Nation, let alone the nation, the way Smart would have.

But at this point, any hire is non-exciting for the Illini Nation. Shaka Smart was plan A. And plan B-F. So the buildup for his him was like the 2005 national title game, and his rejection of the offer feels a lot like Sean May and the 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels. Groce makes sense on a lot of levels, and the Illini hire will have to be sold as manageable and practical at this point, since the exciting and flashy train has left the station.

Is this better or worse than the Beckman hire?

Worse, because of 1.) the higher expectations for basketball over football. 2.) what hoops has to offer that football doesn’t.

On the plus side, to buy out his contract during this season will only cost $200,000. And Groce’s salary is only $300,000. No need to offer that SERIOUS money in the $2.5-2.8 million range that Illinois offered Smart and Stevens now. And when Thomas has already decided to spend $7 million to pay coaches not to work these next couple years, it might be nice to save a few bucks.

And believe it not, Groce is this year’s NCAA Tournament’s rising coaching star. The Bobcats upset the #4 Michigan Wolverines and had the #1 North Carolina Tar Heels (albeit a weakened version without Kendall Marshall) on the ropes before losing in OT. That’s much more excitement than the Illini had have in March Madness since 2005.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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