Commentary

Illinois gets lucky with Groce

They might have stumbled on Ohio coach, but Illini will be glad they found him

Updated: March 29, 2012, 1:09 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

John Groce was a hero on the brick streets of Athens, Ohio, the first coach to take the Ohio Bobcats to two NCAA tournaments since the early 1980s, and he was a missed free throw, perhaps, from taking a 13-seed to the Elite Eight.

You might not have heard of him before this year's tournament, but he didn't come out of the cornfields of the Mid-American Conference.

In four years, he took a fairly average mid-major program and turned it into a March pest. At 40, Groce is the perfect coach to take over the University of Illinois. He's young, hungry and aggressive. He recruits point guards and gives them the keys to his offense. His teams play fast, shooting 3s and causing turnovers.

No, Shaka Smart didn't want the job. But this isn't a dumb hire for the Illinois.

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
Don McPeak/US PresswireJohn Groce led Ohio to the Sweet 16 this season before losing to No. 1 seed North Carolina in overtime on Friday.

Yes, it's official (well, almost). Illinois will replace Bruce Weber with John Groce, sources told ESPNChicago.com on Wednesday night. The search took longer than expected and the negotiations between Groce and athletic director Mike Thomas stretched things out to an interminable length, at least for our 140-character attention span.

After news of his imminent hiring became public, Groce (pronounced Gross) was looked at like he's a nobody by the Illinois fan base, the media and probably some Chicago coaches. Some of the cynicism is simply ignorance, but it's understandable. Illinois basketball hasn't had much go right since making the NCAA championship game in 2005.

Groce was on a roll at Ohio, beating Michigan and South Florida and nearly upsetting North Carolina in the tournament. Two years ago, the Bobcats beat Georgetown.

Needless to say, as publicity goes, the search to replace Weber did not start off well. You get the feeling if Thomas were on "The Bachelor," he'd be proposing to a key grip by the third episode.

There is nothing wrong with getting turned down by the likes of Smart and Brad Stevens, two elite young coaches with no reason to bail on their programs, especially with uncertainty in Illinois' administration. But the public nature of Thomas' failures didn't do much for Illinois' already faltering Q-rating. And it certainly wasn't fair to the coach who wanted the job all along.

As an Ohio alum, I was already well familiar with Groce. I watch games online, read everything and get background information from my sources ("Deep D.P. Dough") in Athens.

So here is what I know about Groce:

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.

Groce got D.J. Cooper, the feisty Chicago point guard, to commit to Ohio by leading the recruiting charge himself. He first saw Cooper play for Meanstreets AAU club shortly after getting the Ohio job, and summarily impressed Cooper's then-assistant coach at Seton Academy, Brandon Thomas.

"Ohio doesn't get D.J. if Groce is not recruiting himself," Thomas said two weeks ago in a conversation. "He showed he wasn't too big to drop by school himself."

Cooper isn't Jabari Parker, the crown prince of Chicago, but I have a feeling Groce will have a shot with Chicago's best players. Cooper has been telling people that Groce will do very well in his hometown, and tweeted congratulations to current Illinois guard D.J. Richardson.

"He is a fantastic recruiter, fantastic," ESPN analyst and Indianapolis radio host Dan Dakich said on the "Waddle & Silvy" show on Monday on ESPN 1000. "No messing around. No, 'Well, he doesn't do this.' Terrific, terrific in people's homes, terrific in terms of being able to evaluate."

Remember, the notion that Chicago is the only place to recruit is a fallacy. You've got to recruit the whole state and beyond. Groce, an Indiana native and graduate of Taylor University, has a big recruiting footprint in Indiana and Ohio. He even got a Champaign kid, Jay Kinney, in his first class at Ohio. It didn't work out -- Kinney was dismissed for breaking rules -- but Kinney is now lighting up the WAC for San Jose State.

Illinois is getting a program builder. Ohio wasn't quite in shambles when he got hired in the summer of 2008, but it wasn't a strong team. The culture wasn't very good, one insider said. In Groce's second year, the Bobcats went 7-9 in the MAC, but won the MAC tournament and beat the Hoyas in the first round. The next year saw some changeover, but observers could see the sea change in the program this season.

I've heard people disparage Groce's 34-30 conference record -- Ohio won a school-record 29 games and was third in the MAC at 11-5 this year -- but if you look closer, you see the development. Also, conference record in the MAC isn't as meaningful as say, the Big Ten. There hasn't been an at-large team out of the conference since 1999. So you want to win when it matters: February and March. Groce is 85-56 overall at Ohio. If you didn't know him before the tournament, it's because he's not much of a self-promoter.

"I'm one guy who doesn't get caught up in that," he told me before the NCAA tournament began. "That's not my deal, making 10 phone calls to reporters to throw my name out there. I learned that from Thad."

An Ohio source said Groce was emotional at the thought of leaving his team. But, of course, no coach passes up the Big Ten to stay in the MAC.

But Groce is a high-major coach, if such a distinction exists anymore. He is certainly a Big Ten coach, not a mid-major wallflower. Groce worked under Thad Matta as he made a four-year jump from Butler to Xavier to Ohio State. I'm sure this tournament trip only reinforced his desire to get back to a league in which Final Fours are expected.

The remaining core of his first recruiting class -- Cooper, Reggie Keely and Ivo Baltic -- will break every wins record at the college. You won't find many Mid-American Conference recruiting classes with multiple wins in the NCAA tournaments.

Groce is a good coach who can also coach talent.

"If there are 20 coaches with better X's and O's skills, I'd be surprised," one MAC assistant coach said. Ohio used a kick-and-shoot offense to get to the Sweet 16, and during the regular season averaged more than nine steals a game. North Carolina had 24 turnovers in the Sweet 16 game.

Weber is known as a strong coach, but it was obvious he lost his most recent team, the one stocked with Chicago-area players. Groce, a coffee junkie, is more intense than Weber, and that should pay off when it comes to connecting with players. But he's also more likely to let talent shine. He runs an up-tempo offense dominated by fast, athletic guards. Yeah, doesn't sound like it would fit Chicago at all.

Evan Turner, who played under Groce at Ohio State is a fan. He tweeted: "Coach Groce's offense is legit. Built for guards. The big ten is going to get even better in the future. Yessir"

If you don't believe him, look at Cooper, who shot about 35 percent from the field and was known to pull up five feet behind the 3-point line. Groce gave him space to succeed. Don't be surprised if Cooper plays in the NBA.

"One time at a clinic, Doc Rivers said one thing he wishes he would've done as a young coach was be less controlling with his best players, because it takes away from their aggressiveness," Groce said. "So I try to do that with D.J. He feels like he has to be aggressive, be in attack mode, and to do that he has to take one or two shots that makes people cross their eyes over, so be it. … If you bridle him, he's not going to be nearly as good or aggressive. I want him to attack."

Illinois is getting a good coach. Plain and simple.

The perception of this hire isn't great right now, but that will change quickly. Thomas might have stumbled into Groce, but he'll be glad he found him.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.