- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- As John Groce's hiring at Illinois was imminent, and the topic of recruiting Chicago came up, someone with close knowledge of the coach said to me, "Just get him in the living room and it's over."
When it comes to recruiting teenagers, that's the general idea.
Groce is supposedly a great "living room guy," which is to say he's a good salesman. That's how you come up in college basketball, by convincing teenagers you're their friend. Some head coaches can't do that and actually coach on a big-time level.
That's the difference between, say, a Tom Thibodeau and a Tom Izzo. By necessity, college coaches are half-Harold Hill and half-Hank Iba. Groce, a spry 40, looks like he could march half the city's guards from Englewood to Champaign.
Can he? Well, that's why he was hired. If he can't recruit Chicago, not to mention the rest of the state, he'll be looking for a new job in a few years and we'll be talking about some other would-be savior in a blue-and-orange tie.
Groce was in full salesman mode Monday in Chicago, and his living room was on the first floor of the Illini Center on South Wacker. Groce, with his raspy voice and devotion to first names and eye contact, was selling himself to the Chicago media.
The new coach of the Fighting Illini, a complete unknown to most Chicago reporters a month ago, did one-one-one interviews with TV reporters, a three-man (OK, two men, one woman) weave with print reporters and followed that up with an appearance on ESPN 1000 and a preps show on a local TV station. He might've taped an appearance with "Chauncey's Great Outdoors." Who can keep track? And all of this after meeting with reporters in St. Louis in the morning.
Needless to say, he's got the rap down with the media. His talking points are polished.
It was important to make a good first impression with the messengers, but now Groce has to sell himself to Chicago. He has already talked to most of the high school coaches in the city and around the state. Groce keeps a checklist of which coaches he and his assistants have talked to, and how the coaches communicated with them.
"At the end of the day it's all about relationships and building trusting relationships," he said. "Regardless of where we're recruiting or who [we're dealing] with."
When the Groce hire was initially leaked, and then confirmed, the local high school coaches were typically blunt and not exactly informed. How does Groce convince them all that Illinois represents myriad best interests? How does he make teenagers and coaches with teenage angst feel special?
"Working at it," he said. "I know that's not a sexy answer. It's a simplistic answer. You've got to work at it just like anything else. I tell the players all the time, 'Fellas, for us to connect and to be together and tough and be a unit, we have to spend time with one another, have to understand one another. We all have issues, no one's perfect. We have to embrace one another, communicate with one another.' You're right, what person doesn't want to feel special? You could think of four or five people in your life that you took an instant liking to or an appreciation for because they made you feel special."
Groce's style of play -- guard-oriented, aggressive, plenty of pro-style preparation -- should appeal to Chicago talent. He knows how to talk to kids, too.
Personally, I don't think it really matters if he lands the big fish, Simeon's Jabari Parker. It would be a coup if he convinces the No. 1 junior in America to stay home, don't get me wrong, but Groce needs to focus on building a program, just like he did at Ohio. Plus, putting the pressure on a high school kid to save a program is ugly and unnecessary.
But Groce, who can't name names obviously, admitted that getting a big name interested pays off in word-of-mouth recruiting.
"It's a good starting point," he said. "One of the things you can fall in a trap to is 'I'm taking Jon Greenberg because he's rated this.' I understand that, but where's he at in competitiveness? Where's he at in love of the game? Where's he at playing his position relative to what we know we need at the point guard position? Does he fit that? You can fall into the trap of 'He's rated this, get him.'
"At the end of the day, when we're recruiting somebody, we have to sit in a room and explain to ourselves, 'Why are we recruiting this guy?'" he added. "And it can't be because he's rated 'blank' on Rivals.com. There's gotta be more to it than that."
He wasn't speaking of anyone directly, but he sure wasn't talking about me. Let's call that the Jereme Richmond Rule. As Groce said, "If it's the wrong fit, it can backfire on you."
"Love of the game is important," Groce said. "We're not a roll-the-ball-out program. We fully expect them to get better every year they're with us, and they've got to meet us halfway. Because if we're going to fill the trough with water, we need horses that are going to drink the water."
Groce's first message to his players was Bill Clinton-esque: "I feel your pain." He asked them to keep an open mind, and he has been surprised how receptive they've been. He hopes he can play nine guys double-digit minutes and wear out teams with depth and speed.
When Groce talks about fit, he will invariably bring up D.J. Cooper, the Chicagoland product who was his first and best recruit at Ohio. Groce saw him an AAU tournament a few weeks after getting the job in June 2008 and fell in love because Cooper, a fast-paced lead guard, was the perfect fit. Four years and three NCAA tournament wins later, Cooper progressed so well, Groce got this job. Good fit made Cooper a Twitter-trending topic in March, plenty of Euros in a couple years, and Groce a millionaire.
This Friday marks a week-long recruiting period and Groce and assistants Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker, both officially added to the program Monday, are getting ready to host and visit recruits. Assistant coach Jerrance Howard's future should be resolved in the coming days. If he doesn't stick around, and he would be a great asset, it sounds like Groce will add another assistant with Chicago ties.
Walker has recruited here before, and Ford, a legitimate character, will have no problem ingratiating himself in Chicago. But it's really about Groce. He's the face of the program and I don't doubt he'll make some headway this spring and summer getting to know the lay of the land. Groce already has major ties in Indiana and Ohio, two fertile recruiting areas.
ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers reported that Simeon junior guard Kendrick Nunn took an unofficial visit to Illinois last week. He has got a perfect game for what Groce wants to do, which is why he recruited him at Ohio after his Nunn's freshman season at Simeon.
As Groce tries to figure out what he has in the present, he has to balance expectations of the fans, his own expectations as a coach and, well, reality.
While Ohio made the NCAA tournament and won a game in his second season, it took two more seasons to feel confident in the program, he said. His first recruiting class there will be seniors next season.
"Coaches, in general, aren't very patient," he said. "My wife would tell you she wishes I was more patient. But I think going through it in a four-year window [at Ohio] helped prepare me for this a little bit. I saw what evolved. We've got an 'I want it now' society, but sometimes to build something great or to do something great, it's not instant gratification or instant success, like right now. It takes some time. That's going to serve me well in this new endeavor."
That's a bit of a sales job to us. I've seen Groce's teams play. Patience wasn't their forte. Expect to see an aggressive recruiting push in Chicago and across Big Ten country. Expect to see the current Illinois team get better.
The living room just got a lot bigger for John Groce. But it's still time to sell.