Illini Fans Are Upset: But It Is Important To Understand Why
If you will allow me, I would like to speak on behalf of a lot of Illinois fans who have become dissatisfied with the coaching search these last few days. After missing on two home run candidates, Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, a sudden up-swell of media types began to report, late Sunday afternoon, that John Groce had become the next target for Mike Thomas.
That would be Ohio University coach John Groce, who took his team to the Sweet Sixteen this year, before falling in overtime to North Carolina. I applaud Groce for his run this year, I am sure he is a fine coach, and he could very well be a good coach at somewhere like Illinois. But frankly, the sudden unanimity of all Illinois media that not only will Groce be the choice, but that he is a good "fit" is what really gets to me.
The columnists, local, Chicago and national, have taken the rebuffs by Stevens and Smart as "putting Illinois fans in their place." Mocking Thomas for attempting to make two of the most coveted coaches in the sport his coach by offering him one of the most lucrative contracts ever. That ought to teach Illinois to dare to go beyond what the wider world perceives as their station. So when John Groce came up, a coach with one Sweet Sixteen to his name, a 34-30 record in one of a perennially one bid league, and no natural ties to Chicago, all of the columnists not only agreed that Groce would be hired, but that Illinois fans should be happy about it, because we are apparently a God-forsaken wasteland.
The rationalization it seems, when Illinois fans become indignant that a coach with Groce's resume is sold to us as exactly the sort of coach Illinois should have hired all along, is to remind Illini fans that "all good coaches start as mid majors" and "it worked out for Thad Matta and Bill Self."
Yes, I understand that there are many coaches that rise up from the lower ranks to become coaching greats, but frankly, there are many more Todd Lickliters out there than Bill Selfs. And frankly, Matta, Self and Lickliter all had far more impressive resumes coming into the Big Ten than does John Groce.
So what we are being told is that "Hey you never know, he could be the next great coach at Illinois!" Yes that is true. But frankly we shouldn't be admonished as a fan base for not immediately getting excited for a coach we all know is a gamble.
No, the best coaches in the league don't want to come to Illinois. But call number three being John Groce tells me that the Athletic Director and all involved in the search are looking for anyone just to get this over with. So we bring out another MAC coach, another guy who will have an uphill battle to break into the Chicago recruiting circles, another guy who will have to win over the fan base.
None of this has anything to do with John Groce the guy. If he is hired, I'll give him a fair shake. I'll root for him, I'll hope that he is able to get great kids from the Chicago area, down state, Indiana and everywhere around the country. And if he wins, he will win over a lot of people.
John Groce isn't what is getting people upset, it is the fact that seven years removed from a Final Four, we are hiring an unproven commodity. After hiring well known coaches with successful track records we are hiring a MAC coach that has not finished higher than third in his league. After getting Jerrance Howard on staff, a rising star in coaching circles, and Illinois alumnus, we are likely bringing in a coach who would not be able to keep him.
No Illinois fan should be happy with the knowledge that their program has deteriorated to such a degree in less than a decade, nor should they be satisfied that we ended up firing Bruce Weber for someone who is an even greater unknown.
At this point, Chris Collins and Reggie Theus would at least have a clear and apparent upside, whether it be familiarity with Chicago on both counts, or NBA experience in the case of Theus. I know lots of Illinois fans who are more than willing to go after these two guys at the moment.
Illinois fans aren't upset because they think Groce is a bad coach or because they couldn't get their first choice or the anything like that. They are upset because taking a chance like this, without any clear strategy, is a sign of program taking a step back, and in doing so, it would seem that all of the progress that was made since the mid 1990's will have evaporated. And why should Illinois fans be thankful for that?
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