- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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As ESPN.com's Andy Katz reported this afternoon, the wide-ranging rumors of Illinois's impending hire of Ohio coach John Groce, no deal is yet completed, and no press conference has yet been scheduled. From Andy:
Ohio coach John Groce continues to be the top focus for the Illinois search, but a deal has not been struck.
A number of sources close to Groce said that the two sides are negotiating. But according to an Illinois spokesperson, athletic director Mike Thomas has reiterated that the process is not over and that there is no set timeline on hiring a coach. The spokesperson said that Illinois will not rush into this decision, despite pressure to get a deal done after public rejections from VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens.
The starts-and-fits nature of this delay doesn't reflect particularly well on Illinois, but it's OK to delay a final decision in order to ensure you hire the best possible candidate. Discretion and due diligence are never a bad thing. And any eventual hire of Groce would be OK, too. He's highly respected in the profession, he plays a style that should appeal to recruits (at least according to Evan Turner), and he's hot, fresh off a star-turn run to the Sweet 16 and a near-upset of No. 1-seeded North Carolina.
The problem? Illinois's coaching search has long since gone off the rails.
It started obviously enough: Illinois wanted Shaka Smart. But when Smart said no, Illinois AD Mike Thomas -- in an admirable attempt to hire the school's first African-American head coach -- reached out to Alabama's Anthony Grant, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton and Washington's Lorenzo Romar, none of which, as should probably have been expected, had any interest in the jobs themselves. (All of them have their high-major programs on upward trajectories at various stages of their tenures. Why would any of them leave?)
After that fell through, Illinois wished upon a shining star and reached out to Brad Stevens, who (as Dana O'Neil reported last week) returned from a fishing trip and sidewalk chalk session just in time to say "thanks, but no thanks." Illinois was never going to get Stevens. It was almost silly to offer.
In any case, the impression left among Illinois fans -- and Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh -- was that Illinois was more worried about making an admirable and entirely worthwhile statement than finding the best possible coach for the job. From Haugh:
From the periphery, the priority of finding the best African-American coach then took precedent for Thomas over finding the best coach, period. [...] Why not Baylor's Scott Drew or Kansas State's Frank Martin? Chris Collins? I can see Grant, but Hamilton and Romar appeared to be names randomly pulled off a list of most qualified African-American coaches who might consider changing jobs.
When a source told me Illinois researched Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins and Duke assistant Jeff Capel, it seemed obvious Thomas had gotten sidetracked trying to serve the wrong constituency. It seemed the two Illinois board of trustees who voted against hiring football coach Tim Beckman because he was white had gotten inside Thomas' head. [...] Meanwhile, as Thomas wasted time chasing Stevens, Kansas State's Martin — a proven winner never considered but was interested in the Illinois job — accepted the job at South Carolina.
In other words, Thomas and the Illinois brass have done themselves no favors in this thing. Frankly, they've booted on it. And now they find themselves at a point where an announcement is already expected and is already being panned by the future coach's most important constituency: the Chicago prep scene.
"All I know is, it’s going to be an absolute firestorm for the guy when he’s hired," a Chicago prep basketball analyst said. "It could get ugly for him with Chicago people. It’s going to be imperative that he’s careful in putting together a staff."
And that, in a nutshell, is why the Illinois job wasn't enticing enough to land Smart or Stevens, why it isn't good enough to poach any of the best possible African-American candidates from their solid gigs, and why this well-intentioned coaching search has turned into such an unmitigated mess: You have to deal with Chicago. Specifically, you have to deal with the city of Chicago, where AAU and high school coaches wield influence like ward aldermen, where everything -- more so than most areas of recruiting, which is saying something -- is about relationships, about power dynamics, about balancing constantly conflicting interests.
Groce hasn't even been hired (yet), and already the Chicago prep guys are lashing out. Who wants that headache?
In the end, Groce may end up being a blessing in disguise. And Illinois should worry first and foremost about finding a quality coach. He can win over Chicago -- and the state's fans -- later.
But here's where the situation stands: Illinois fans are apoplectic, the local columnist is persuasively panning Thomas, and the Illini still haven't made a hire. And if/when Groce is hired, he'll enter this delightful situation knowing he wasn't the first or second or third or fourth choice anyway. If he wants the headache, more power to him. But it's not hard to understand why other coaches don't.