- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Chicago-area high school and club coaches reacted with mixed opinions to Illinois’ hiring of John Groce.
Most of the coaches reacted negatively to Groce’s hiring, saying they were disappointed Illinois didn’t hire someone with Chicago ties or someone they were familiar with.
“I got two words – good luck,” said Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin, whose current players include nationally-ranked junior Jabari Parker and sophomore Jahlil Okafor. “I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I don’t know who he is. Really the past 4-5 years, we’ve had high-major players in our program, so we never crossed paths with him.”
Curie high school coach Mike Oliver had a similar reaction. Oliver’s top player is 6-9 sophomore center Cliff Alexander, who is ranked No. 11 in the Class of 2014.
“I never heard of him in my life,” Oliver said. “I don’t know who he was. I understand he’s the head coach of Ohio. I think it’s very disappointing. Personally, I don’t know his background. I don’t think that’s a big upgrade with what we had. I think we’re back in the same situation or worse than when we had coach (Bruce) Weber.”
MeanStreets club coach Tai Streets had one of his players, D.J. Cooper, go play for Groce, but also couldn’t speak to knowing Groce. Streets’ current players include juniors Kendrick Nunn, Paul White and Alvin Ellis and sophomore Tyler Ulis.
“I really haven’t talked to him at all,” Streets said. “I know he obviously recruited D.J. I was told he hung around some. I didn’t talk to him. Illinois will be a good challenge for him. We’ll see if he can make it happen.”
Illinois recruiting analyst and former club coach Larry Butler believed Groce could be successful in Chicago.
“It’s not a bad hire at all,” Butler said. “I think he’s a great hire. I think he’s a dynamite communicator. He’s proven he can get kids to elevate their play. He’ll be able to deal with guys around Chicago. He’ll be able to win guys over.”
Illinois Wolves club coach Mike Mullins also thought Groce could do well at Illinois. Mullins’ players include Illini commit Jalen James, a junior point guard and Normal University’s Keita Bates-Diop.
“What I know of coach Groce is throughout the years he’s done a great job recruiting wherever he’s been and has moved up the ladder,” Mullins said. “He’s done everything to move up to be considered for this job. He didn’t ask for the media circus around him. He didn’t create that.
“I think he’s proven he can recruit in the Big Ten. He recruited NBA players and recruited them all around the country. He has Midwestern roots. He’s been successful in the NCAA tournament. Those are all things that prior to the search began were on the list what a new head coach should be able to do.”
Whitney Young high school coach Tyrone Slaughter expected a more high-profile name. Slaughter’s players include nationally-ranked sophomores White and Okafor.
“I guess my thing is I don’t want to bury a guy before he starts,” Slaughter said. “But for me, it’s an interesting hire. That would be the best way I could put it. It’s an interesting hire given that we’ve been talking so much about recruiting Chicago and Illinois.
“It wasn’t what I expected to be the hire after coach Weber. I thought we were really looking to bring someone with a much grander national appeal. We obviously didn’t do that.”
Simeon high school coach Robert Smith was also unfamiliar with Groce. He believed Groce had some work to put in if he was going to have any chance at Parker, who attends Simeon and is the nation’s top junior, or any of the area’s top juniors.
“He’s definitely behind the eight-ball,” said Smith, who was contacted about Illinois’ position. “I can tell you that. He can come in and overwhelm everyone and everyone can jump on his bandwagon. I’m not going to have a personal vendetta against Illinois. I’m still going to be for Illinois. I still want them to be No. 1 in the country.”
Slaughter thought Groce’s background in recruiting Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. could help him, but thought time was more of an issue.
“He’s had success with high-end players, so maybe that part won’t be difficult for him,” Slaughter said. “The biggest part will be making up ground in a short amount of time. You have an inordinate amount of time make up in a short time in that a lot of these players have been recruited by coaches for awhile now. These are people they see and know.”
Irvin felt the same.
“In 2013, there’s a lot of high-major kids in that class,” Irvin said. “They’re being recruited by Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Marquette, DePaul. They’re being recruited by everybody. Now you bring in someone who hasn’t had any contact with any of these players. He’s got a lot of ground to make up. I’m not saying it can’t be done. Anything is possible.”
Smith felt it was vital for Groce to quickly create a relationship with Chicago’s coaches. He believed DePaul coach Oliver Purnell went through a similar process when he was hired in 2010.
“You have to get the right people on staff and relate to the Chicago area and know the ins and outs of it,” Smith said. “I think that happened a little with DePaul. I think Oliver and I had a conversation and our whole relationship changed.
“It’s coming in and building a relationship and kind of listening. I’m not saying do what we say, but listen to Tyrone Slaughter and myself, the Irvins and Tai Streets, the people with the bulk of the players. We’re not street guys. We’re not going to be taking money. We just want our kids to be taken care of.”
Oliver thought it was especially key to create relationships with the high school coaches.
“I think personally I’m looking for someone to have the best interest of the kids and try to get the best product we have in the state,” Oliver said. “Just do it the right way. A lot of coaches recruit through the AAU system. I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I think you have to build through the high school coaches. At the end of the day, the high school coaches knows three times the amount the AAU coaches know about a player.”
Despite many of the coaches’ initial reactions, they were looking forward to giving Groce the benefit of their doubt.
“I definitely wouldn’t mind meeting him,” Irvin said. “I would give him a chance. I’ll see what my first impression is.”
Slaughter hoped Groce would consider bringing someone with Chicago ties onto his staff.
“Obviously, we’d like to see someone from Chicago actively looked at to assume some responsibility at Illinois,” Slaughter said. “I believe there are quality people here who could assist and help the staff and help turn that program.”
The coaches also explained they were vocal about Illinois’ coaching decision because they want the Illini to succeed.
“We just want to put Illinois on the national map,” Oliver said. “I’m willing to work with the new coach. I believe everyone deserves a chance. I just want a fresh start. I love Illinois basketball.”