#ILCOACHSEARCH: Fin (In Which Mike Thomas Reaches on an Error)

So the way I see it, there are two separate components to the 2012 basketball coaching search (well, three, but I’m going to just ignore the jackassery foisted on all of us by the Board of Trustees over the last two days), something Illini fans will look back on as a very sobering time for a once-proud program. And in my mind, you can’t accurately assess John Groce without first accurately re-assessing our job. So let’s do that.

The Job

Back when the position first opened, I made the case as to why I thought our job was really good. Like top 10-15 good. Turns out it’s not. For a whole variety of reasons, probably. Ron Guenther tolerated the status quo for too long. Our BOT and Administration regularly make it look like Illinois would be a crappy place to work. We’re now in an era where George Mason, VCU and Butler can make the Final Four, more mid-majors are making the tournament than ever, and coaches don’t view a few tournament upsets as their one shot to pull the ripcord anymore. Our Chicago fanbase and talent pool, supposedly a positive, could actually be a negative. It doesn’t help that for the last ten years, our athletic department has gone out of its way to treat the city of Chicago as something it tolerates, as opposed to something that it prizes. That’s why you have an entire city’s worth of media sneering in delight at a coaching search that officially demoted our basketball program into the nameless rabble that is “most BCS schools.” It’s a collective “LOL, we’ll check in with you when you’re relevant every 20 years, back to the Bulls” from the newspapers, TV and radio stations that should be something we hold up to impress potential coach candidates.

This is how you arrive at the near-unbelievable result of being turned down by coaches from the CAA and the Horizon League when you’re offering the most attractive available position (there’s not a lot of competition, really) both in terms of salary and potential for success. Sure, we’re offering a big raise and an easier path to the NCAA Tournament, but our intangibles don’t stack up – especially for guys that are making a comfortable living in favorable coaching situations. The biggest misstep in this coaching search wasn’t targeting Smart and Stevens – you needed to make those offers, even if it was never a sure thing they’d accept. I think the mistake was not casting a wider net and talking seriously with the likes of Jay Wright, Buzz Williams and Frank Martin. Unlike Smart and Stevens, you can point to reasons beyond just a raise that these guys might think about leaving. And once those reasons are in play, a substantial pay raise starts looming a little larger.

But as I wrote during the football search, coaching hires are pretty much a crapshoot for all but a token few schools. We knew we weren’t one of those schools in football – hell, that list might just be Ohio State and Alabama (remember the Michigan coaching search?) Heading into the basketball search, we thought we were in that club, the small group of schools that could pluck a coach with championship-level pedigree from somewhere else, somewhere established. We’re not. So you can only evaluate the John Groce hire after you’ve accepted that fact.


I’m waiting (here, this might help – do I link to A Lion Eye too much? You can tell me if I do).


Okay, you’ve accepted it? Alright! Angriest high five EVAR.


The Hire

Yeah, I know, if I had told you at the beginning of the coach search that we’d be hiring a coach who sported a 34-30 record in the MAC, I think you’d (fairly) respond with:


If you read that almost hilariously expansive list of candidates I posted at the beginning of the coaching search (Larry Brown was on it!), and I told you we were going to go off-list for John Groce, you probably would be like “Wait, how does he know that guy’s name?”

I didn’t know his name, so I couldn’t have said that. Frankly, I’m not totally sure Mike Thomas knew his name until he beat Michigan (who am I kidding? Mike Thomas loves him some MACtion and probably had Groce in mind when he started this). But the reason this post is titled “reaches on an error” and not “goes down swinging” is that there are some things to be excited about on John Groce’s resume, and The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy seems to be on a one-man mission to tweet all of them:

Maybe buy the guy a drink first, Mike. Easy. But the last point is pretty valid. The guy was integral in recruiting success everywhere he’s been, and then got the reins at Ohio and won three NCAA tournament games in the last three years, which, incidentally, is more than Illinois won over the same time span [projectile vomiting]. Did Mike Thomas fall ass-backwards into a guy with Thad Matta chops? Maybe. Everyone at Ohio loves him, especially ESPN Chicago’s Jon Greenberg:

Illinois is getting a top-flight recruiter. Groce didn’t get this job with coaching chops alone. If you care about meaningless awards, Rivals.com named him recruiter of the year in 2006 when he landed Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook, which resulted in an NCAA finals appearance. Check out Ohio State in the Final Four this weekend. Groce was still on staff when most of the current team was being recruited.

Don’t believe the noise, especially for them, that Chicago coaches won’t like him. They will like him just fine once they meet him. He will recruit Chicago better than the Illinois coaches who preceded him. His assistants (according to the Chicago Tribune, some of the holdup was due to his salary demands for them) and Jerrance Howard (if he stays) will complement Groce, who does fine on his own.

And when you realize that “maybe” is the best we can do with this hire (see above), I guess you take it and then take a look at Groce’s history. You look at D.J. Cooper and Evan Turner excitedly tweeting about how his offense is going to light up some Big Ten scoreboards. Yeah, he could be the next Todd Lickliter and we could become Iowa. But, in all honesty, he seems better than that. In fact, he’s done more than Tom Izzo or Bo Ryan did before they took their current jobs.

He passes the in-game eye test. Maybe we can hope for someone other than just Joe Bertrand slashing to the basket this year. He also hasn’t been afraid to play deep rotations which Weber refused to do even after he said he really needed to do it and made pre-season promises to that end. Either way, it really speaks to what a coaching nadir 2011-12 was that, having only seen three games of Groce, I have no doubt whatsoever he’ll give us an improvement in the sideline department that will be worth a few – maybe several – wins.

He definitely needs to take some of that leftover Shakamoney and pay for a staff that can throw some weight around on the recruiting trail, and quickly. It’s great that he’s been the guy at Ohio, but that also means he’s put some years in between him and his monster hauls at tOSU. It’d probably behoove him to toss a bone to Chicago and its endlessly needy HS/AAU scene, if only because with the Ohio State that he helped build and Zombie Indiana the way they are, we’re going to be playing second or third fiddle to those schools on his home turf in Ohio and Indiana. 

It’s looking like Jerrance Howard might not be sticking around, but just like Vic Koenning in football, it’s a nice bonus when a key assistant stays on, never something you can count on. Hopefully our current commits won’t be derailed.

On top of that, the task ahead isn’t easy. We need to make up ground on Michigan St., Ohio St., Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and (maybe) Purdue. The good news is, if you can beat Penn St., Northwestern and Minnesota, you’re already an improvement over last year, coach!

And really, that last point is the key thing. We finished the season 2-12 over our last 14. 2-12! Mother of god! The bar is low, and – current internet evidence to the contrary – we’re a fairly patient lot. We gave Bruce Weber nine years, after all. All John Groce has to do is come off competent at the opening press conference (a la Tim Beckman) and then bust it through the summer; once the season starts, just show improvement and play a style that doesn’t make blood spurt from our fans’ collective eyes. Run a successful play out of a timeout. We’ve forgotten what that’s like.

But back to Thomas – he talked about competing for championships, about putting Illinois back on the national stage. This coaching search was not the way to do that. He should’ve known some of the “only at Illinois” barriers that were awaiting him, especially after hiring a football coach, but seemed to run headlong into them again. However, if you pull off a rally, at the end you don’t care if it started with a picturesque double to the gap or if somebody bailed you out by booting a grounder.


2 thoughts on “#ILCOACHSEARCH: Fin (In Which Mike Thomas Reaches on an Error)

  1. Pingback: The Runaway Success That Was John Groce’s First Season | pro se

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