In perhaps the most widely expected personnel decision since March 9th, 2012, John Groce was let go as head coach of the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team this weekend. Athletic Director Josh Whitman said, “This wasn't the culmination of one game. It wasn't a single moment where, “‘This is it, this can't continue.’ It was an assessment that has been ongoing for a long time. I made the decision today.”
As indicated by Whitman, the writing has been on the wall for some time. After losing to Winthrop early in the season, starting a brutal stretch of three consecutive losses, Illinois endured a horrible start to conference play (3-8), practically sealing the deal on Groce being replaced. A late season rally was erased by a crushing defeat at Rutgers and a blowout loss in the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan, ensuring a fourth consecutive season without an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1980.
I think everyone has a list of who might replace John Groce. They’ve had them for weeks upon weeks. This is my list. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
The guy I most wanted was Monty Williams. By all reports he was Whitman’s first choice, too. After reading this piece and how Williams has coped with losing his own wife, how could you not be a fan of the guy? But being a college coach and being a single dad don’t work. So no one can begrudge him for turning Whitman down.
Next up, in my mind is one of Tony Bennett, Gregg Marshall, or Archie Miller. All three will be coaching in the NCAA Tourney because all three are absolute studs of coaches. But all three are paid well at their current jobs (Virginia, Wichita State, and Dayton, respectively), so I don’t think there’s much chance they make the move to C-U. If that were to happen, however, it would be great. The next few guys aren’t bad choices either, though.
The (seemingly) consensus top choice: Cuonzo Martin
Martin has been debated plenty by Illini writers, professional and otherwise, and for good reason. In eight-plus (this year’s still going, after all) seasons as a head coach he has just once had a losing record, which came in his first year at Missouri State, where he inherited a team that was 309th in average scoring. He improved to 111th in average scoring the next year and then won an MVC title in his third year. He then took Tennessee (a football school if ever there was one) off the bubble and into the Tourney and has put Cal in the top 25 the last two years. Cal missed the big dance, but Martin’s a quality coach and a good recruiter (he got Chicago-native Charlie Moore to go west, after all).
Long story short: Martin has all the qualities you look for in a coaching hire and hiring him at Illinois would be a generally a good deal.
Pros: East St. Louis native, former Purdue and NBA player, proven winner
Cons: Will take a good bit of money to pry him from Cal, has never been head coach at one school for more than 3 years
The wild card: Jerrance Howard
Many times I’ve wondered why Jerrance Howard is still an assistant coach. He’s an outstanding recruiter and he’s coached under some of the best basketball coaches ever. It seems like he’s on track for a team of his own, I’d even bet the former Illini player and coach has been offered a small school head coaching position somewhere, so why is he still Bill Self’s assistant?
Maybe his drug offense delayed his ascension (it was a minor pot offense, nothing to see) or maybe he’s holding out for the right job, but I think his alma mater would probably be able to get the job done. However, he comes with a big question mark simply because he’s never been a head coach.
After working under Bruce Weber, Howard briefly moved to SMU to be an assistant for Larry Brown and has since settled in comfortably in Lawrence as an understudy for Bill Self. He’s helped lure countless top players to Kansas, but could he do the same as a head coach? Perhaps this is not the time or place to welcome an untested head coach (both for the sake of the program and the coach himself, as the pressure might be too much), but I think that Howard’s one of the few questionable candidates would be welcomed in Champaign.
Pros: Peoria native, former Illini, great recruiter, coached under Bill Self and Larry Brown
Cons: Unproven as a head coach, may be more comfortable as an assistant
The stretch: A Drew
Baylor is a bit of a flat circle. When Scott Drew took over 2003, he was inheriting a scandal-ridden program. He’s brought that team a long way, including a spot at number 1 this year, but the entire school now is riddled with scandal thanks to the football team. With that going on, maybe now’s the time to make a break for Scott Drew.
He’s a great recruiter, a coaching legacy (son of Valpo legend Homer Drew) that has proven his own chops, and a Midwest guy. He’d cost a pretty penny (making nearly $3 million at Baylor currently), but if he brings wins to Illinois then the money will come back to the program. Money, of course, is a great motivator, but if Illinois isn’t the best Big Ten or Power 5 job available (and there is an opening at NC State and potential for openings at Indiana and Georgetown) Scott Drew could easily choose a more prestigious place to play savior (and Illinois is certainly not as prestigious as many fans think).
However, I’m not convinced Scott is the best Drew currently coaching. Bryce Drew, who has Vanderbilt in the Tourney in his first season with the Commodores, is maybe more talented. Bryce Drew had the better playing career and then, like his brother, took the reins at Valpo from his dad. He put together a .717 winning percentage and reached the Dance twice in five years in a one-bid league.
This season, Bryce Drew’s team has underperformed at times but also scored big wins (Florida twice, South Carolina) with a top-10 strength of schedule. Last year, when it looked like the Illinois job might be open, Bryce Drew checked in. Maybe he’s not fully settled in Nashville and the chance is there to lure him back to the Midwest? Oh, and did I mention Illini legend Roger Powell is one of the younger Drew’s assistants?
Pros: Winners, good recruiters, Midwest natives
Cons: Expensive (Scott on a yearly salary, Bryce because of a buyout), has been in Waco for 14 years/has only been in Nashville 1 year
The just for fun: Joe Dooley
I don’t think I’ve seen Dooley come up on any other list, but maybe now that he’s piloted Florida Gulf Coast to its second consecutive Tourney his name will be more popular. Dooley’s record at FGCU is good, with at least 21 wins each of his four seasons and top 2 conference finishes every season.
Prior to coming to Fort Myers, however, his head coaching record was spotty, with only mediocre to bad seasons at East Carolina to his name, but he has experience as a Kansas assistant that maybe (?) balance that out. Really, the reason to include Dooley is because his teams are fun. He wasn’t the coach of the original Dunk City FGCU team, but he’s kept that mentality and his teams have entertained. Illinois could really use some work with the entertainment value, as dunks have been like unicorns for the Illini.
Pros: Winning record at small school FGCU, consistently entertaining teams
Cons: Not a Midwest guy, short record of winning, never a big school head coach
Some other dudes
Dan Majerle: The former NBA player and coach got his school, Grand Canyon University (!), a top 25 vote this year. But he might not want to leave the Phoenix area, where he has a chain of restaurants.
Ron Sanchez: Doubtful you get Tony Bennett to leave, so why not steal the guy he elevated to Associate Head Coach? But given his lack of head coaching experience, unclear if he’s the guy to get.
Kevin Keats: From the Pitino coaching tree, has done well at little UNC Wilmington. Seems more likely to stay east (NC State, maybe?).
Pat Kelsey: Has turned Winthrop into an annual threat and beat Illinois pretty good this year. Like Keats, will be considered for many openings in the east this spring.
Linc Darner: DII National Champion with Florida Southern, he’s continued to do well in DI with UW-Green Bay. Illini fans and alumni might not want another small school guy, though.
Matt McCall: A Billy Donovan protege, his Chattanooga teams have been good ones, including beating Illinois last year. He has a short track record, all in the southeast, so he may not want to move on yet or move to the Midwest.