Despite lack of ties, new men’s basketball leader arrives ahead of schedule

Did Illinois just back into a gem of a hire with John Groce? Is that even possible in 2012? Those are the questions that percolated in my mind after taking in Thursday afternoon’s press conference from the front row, craned neck and all.

Whether your faith lies in God, fate, or none of the above, it’s hard not to look at how Groce came to be the head coach at Illinois and marvel. For one, it’s hard not to marvel at the way the job offer came to him. It’s likewise hard not to marvel at the recent effusion of fan venom that seemed to morph into love in just a few minutes on a podium. Heck, I was a quarter measure of self-containment away from chuckling out loud out in disbelief. This was the end result of Illini nation’s eight days crouched in DEFCON 3?

Here we were, sitting in front of the Danville, Ind., native (107 miles from Champaign, according to Groce) at the end of one of the uglier periods in program history, and it was as if the firestorm of speculative rumors, mysterious flights, wailing and gnashing of fan’s teeth never happened.

Sure, it was a self-selecting group of Illini nation that sat in for Groce’s introduction, but one could almost sense a collective thought bubble forming (“This is the man we panned before he ever left Ohio?”). There’s really no other way I describe it other than the scene in “The Rookie” when the actor who plays Spanish in Old School sees Dennis Quaid whip a fireball during practice and lets out a raspy “Oh my God!” of disbelief.

During that period of venom leading up to Thursday, there was of course the frequent mention of Groce’s 34-30 record in MAC play since taking over in 2008, his “lack of ties” to Chicago (despite the fact he helped peel the likes of Evan Turner and D.J. Cooper from the state’s top programs) and his lack of the “wow” factor.

Two out of three are valid, I contend. But I also couldn’t help but think of the recent coordinator hires on the football team, specifically Billy Gonzales, a clean-cut 40-year-old man who has serious star potential despite not spending more than a few seasons in a meaningful leadership role on a major team.

If you ask me, there’s little difference between hiring Groce in 2017 after leading Creighton or Virginia to a string of successful seasons. I find it hard to believe Groce wasn’t ticketed for such a path to Smart’s level (or thereabouts). Thomas just plucked him a few years ahead of schedule.

And yet despite the vitriolic outpouring of confusion and angst, there were current blue-chip prospects Jalen James and Kendrick Nunn expressing their excitement over Groce’s hire over Twitter and ESPN.com, respectively. Turner raved about him. Coaches began to come to his defense. My brother, who left a message for Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth’s basketball office during halftime of the “Weber breaking point” loss to Purdue on February 15, messaged me: “I think everyone is really excited after that press conference.”

And sure, the hearty group of fans on hand at Assembly Hall would have no doubt eaten out of my hand if I got to the podium and talked about my fantasy basketball team. But Groce is at the very least charismatic (and not in a handshake-and-glance-over-your-shoulder kind of way), principled, honest and a compelling man to send your son to play for if you’re a parent of a recruit.

Perhaps more to the point, though, how did we actually get here? What about Shaka Smart? Anthony Grant, Leonard Hamilton or Lorenzo Romar? Brad Stevens?

It’s amazing that in this day and age of scouting and scouring, chartered jets and luxury suites — not to mention national search firms — it took a “collapse” of the DIA’s systematic search to land a man that could prove to be one of its best hires in decades. Who knew that one of the more creative, meaningful (if altogether unexpected) hires in the Big Ten would be a virtual afterthought at the outset of the process?

Here’s another wild thought that is fitting considering Groce’s improbable run to the Illini job: Would Groce be standing on the podium if Akron guard Alex Abreu’s free throw had been tipped in during the last few seconds of regulation in the MAC Tournament championship game, sending the game to overtime and perhaps Ohio to the NIT?

Would he be cracking jokes about his Hoosier-crazed grandmother forcing him to root for the Cream and Crimson if the gaggle of coaching candidates ahead of him in Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas’ queue had not said no?

A wild ride, indeed. But no wilder than the realization that the best hire when all is said and done may have been No. 6 in the queue.

Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit.