John Groce poses for his Chief Illiniwek tryout.
All indications are that John Groce is going to accept the head coaching job at the University of Illinois, as soon as the finer details are worked out.
And the bickering that goes along with that move has already started.
Chicago Public League coaches claim to have no idea who Groce is (even though he convinced a Chicago boy, albeit from the Catholic League, to come play for the Bobcats). Illini alums are worried that the coaching search has been haphazard. And Illinois AD Mike Thomas has never really had the support of the board of trustees.
But here is the thing: Groce is a better candidate than any of the other names that have come through the door to interview for the job.Sure, Groce is the current flavor of the month in college basketball. He is the this year's Brad Stevens, or Shaka Smart. He led a team with a double-digit seed into the Sweet 16, so he must be a great coach.
Sometimes it is the case that coaches have a good team. Just ask Dan Monson about that.
But Groce has built success at Ohio, a success driven by his recruiting and team building skills, not by a flash in the pan.
D.J. Cooper might have been the driving force behind Ohio's run to the Sweet 16, but he had help from Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg in the tournament. Reggie Keely made huge contributions during the MAC Tournament to get Ohio to the tournament in the first place.
Cooper is the star, but there is a strong foundation around him.
Smart and Stevens have built the same kind of success at their schools, but there is a definitive difference between Groce and the two candidates who spurned the Illini.
Groce has experience in the Big Ten as an assistant for Thad Matta at Ohio State. He helped recruit at the highest levels. He has gone from the Butler, to Xavier, to Ohio State, understanding how things work at every level, learning what types of players he should be targeting at every step. Smart may have been an assistant with Clemson and Florida, but he didn't get the breadth and depth of experience that Groce had with Matta.
There is a big difference between the guys that you go after at Xavier and Ohio State. The level of recruit is different, in the same way that there is a difference in the level of recruit between Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia, or Butler and Indiana.
Smart and Stevens might have a chance to get a better level of recruit now, but it would be a rarity.
That Groce is an "unknown" in Chicago shouldn't matter, at least not right now.
Recruiting relationships take time; they aren't built overnight by just a hire. If Illinois were that concerned about recruiting the city (and no, getting top junior Jabari Parker to come to Illinois will not change the fortunes of the Illini), they wouldn't be looking at mid-major coaches outside the area. They would be looking at big names, or assistants who are already recruiting the area, college coaches already with a firm connection to the city.
But you can win at Illinois without the top stars from the city, who are more likely to spurn the state school for bigger programs elsewhere.
Groce can build those relationships if need be. He has done so in the past with Ohio State, and he is still a name around Ohio. Yes, Illinois might look like Ohio State-West for a year or two, in terms of the home state of players coming in. But Groce has established connections in Columbus, and around the state.
He will just be talking to the top player on a team, as opposed to the second or third best guy.
Things will change in Chicago. Groce and his assistants will come into the city more and more. The coaches who think he is a nobody now will learn what he and his program stand for. Chicago will open for Illinois and its likely head coach.
It will take time, time that Illinois will have to give Groce to build things his way. It won't be easy with the way the Illini fans overreact to every breath a player takes, but it needs to work itself out.
There are no quick fixes, not even if they are named Smart or Stevens.
There is only a process and his name is John Groce.