Update On The Illinois Coaching Search

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 27th, 2012

It has been over two weeks since Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas let go of Bruce Weber. Thomas continued to make the right moves after the firing by pursuing VCU’s Shaka Smart with a huge offer last week.  Reports indicated that the offer on the table was $2.5 million per year, which certainly sent the message that Illinois is committed to winning, at least from a monetary perspective. ESPN analysts such as Jay Bilas have been raving about the Illinois gig being one of the top coaching jobs in the country. Everything was in place, but Smart declined the offer. After Shaka Smart, reports were floating around that Brad Stevens was another potential target for the job but he quickly squashed any such rumors. Other coaches that have denied interest in the job include Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Wichita State’s Greg Marshall so any move to Illinois may be out of question right now. Kansas State’s Frank Martin has expressed interest to leave Manhattan, wound up in South Carolina instead.  So where does Illinois go now? The Illini faithful are a little confused because money is not the issue anymore. The athletic department wants to hire the best coach available and will spend a decent amount of change, but will the other good candidates make the move?

Ohio's John Groce may be the next Head Coach of Illinois. (TimesUnion)

Before we move onto the next list of candidates, it is worth examining if Illinois is still a top job after missing the tournament three out of the past five seasons. Historically, since the Lou Henson era started in Champaign, Illinois has been a competitive program in the college basketball landscape. Regularly competing for Big Ten championships, a couple of Final Four appearances and overall an exciting brand of basketball has transformed Illinois into a legit Big Ten program. The potential recruiting pipeline through Chicago is also an impressive factor for coaches to consider due to the heavy pool of talent flowing through. But in a “what have you done for me lately?” world, Illinois is probably the sixth, maybe even the seventh best job in the B1G, right now – after Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan. Sure, Indiana has been horrible during Crean’s first three seasons, but to quote him again, “it is Indiana.” Michigan is on the upswing with a top recruiting class coming to Ann Arbor and a B1G regular season championship. Purdue is only gearing up for better seasons under Matt Painter. Illinois’ potential over the next 3-4 seasons is not as good as the top five or six teams. Prospective coaches also realize that you can’t just recruit Chicago and expect to cruise in this conference because you need to bring your A-game to the white board. B1G hosts the best basketball minds in the country, specifically from the ones mentioned as the top six teams right now.

Having said all of that, Champaign can still appeal to several prospects. The following are a set of potential names that have been flying though the rumor mill.

John Groce (Ohio)

If post-season success is a key requirement for Illinois along with recruiting, then look no further than John Groce of Ohio University. Groce has been a Thad Matta disciple for over six seasons when he worked at Xavier and Ohio State. He is known to be an excellent recruiter and follows Matta’s recruiting philosophy very efficiently. The Fighting Illini can look at the talent on Ohio State’s teams from 2006-2008 if they want to analyze Groce’s recruiting skills. He can clearly get his team fired up for the big moment as he led the Bobcats to three NCAA Tournament wins over the last three seasons – against Georgetown, South Florida, and Michigan. Groce may not be an established name for the Illini fans, but he very well might end up giving them the spark that is needed in Champaign. Nine years ago, Thad Matta, who was coaching at Xavier, had expressed interested in the Illinois job according to some reports due to his Illinois roots. But the Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther was not a fan of hiring another young “hot” coach who would use Illinois as a stepping stone as Bill Self did. Every Big Ten fan is aware of Matta’s work at Ohio State, but Illinois might be getting a younger Matta disciple in John Groce with a fair amount of upside based on his career so far. But Illini fans want a bigger name and Groce might not be enough for their appetite.

Johnny Dawkins (Stanford), Jeff Capel & Chris Collins (Duke Assistants)

When talking about “potential,” look no further than Mike Krzyzewski’s assistants or the ones who worked at Duke for a while. Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins has done a decent job at Stanford, but certainly not during the post-season which is a strong requirement to be accepted at Illinois. The Illinois Board of Trustees are pushing for a minority candidate and Dawkins also comes from a winning culture at Duke after working with Coach K for close to a decade as an assistant. Jeff Capel, former coach at Oklahoma and current assistant at Duke may get a call too, but once again Illinois might be skeptical of embracing a coach who rode the Blake Griffin recruiting class to success. Amongst the Coach K’s assistants, Chris Collins might garner the most attention if this search goes on for another week. Collins was essentially the Jon Scheyer of the ’90s – combo guard growing up in the Chicago suburbs, who could have gone to Illinois, but chose Duke instead. He is supposed to be one of Coach K’s top recruiters and should be able to work his charm in Chicago. But he has no head coaching experience and Coach K’s assistants don’t always succeed immediately. They recruit well but they bring in players that fit Coach K’s system. Only a Hall of Fame coach, however, can turn that talent around into Final Fours. Ask Notre Dame’s Mike Brey about it. Brey has been great at Dame, but he couldn’t translate well in March, and that won’t work for the Orange Krush.

One big factor in the Illinois coaching search this season is the limited pool of candidates after Smart, Brad Stevens, and Anthony Grant. If Bruce Weber had been fired last season, there were three other coaches who would have had a genuine interest in the Illinois job – Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M, Cuonzo Martin of Missouri State, and Brian Gregory of Dayton. Both Martin and Gregory have Big Ten roots and they probably would have taken the job in a heartbeat. But after just one season at Tennessee and Georgia Tech, they are not interested in a switch. Turgeon left for Maryland, but would have listened to Illinois as well and would have fit very well within the Big Ten line of coaches.

Overall, Illinois fans will not settle for a coach unless they repeatedly get turned down by some of the big names such as Smart and Stevens. Mike Thomas is playing the hand that has been dealt to him in the current college hoops landscape. Not everybody wants to make a lateral move purely based on money. It will just come down to selling the next two seasons based on the current talent at Illinois and the potential of recruiting in the state of Illinois moving forward – both of the factors are not bad.

Deepak Jayanti (241 Posts)


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