By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Always an Illini, Jerrance Howard is no longer one.
Not professionally, at least.
But you know what? Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the former Illinois player and assistant coach’s absence in orange next season is something that Illini Nation should get all that blue about.
Howard, a respected recruiter, will certainly land on his feet. And Illini hoops clearly is putting a new one forward by completely detaching itself from the unlucky Bruce Weber regime.
That decision is more likely something to get excited about rather than fret over, even if Howard is well liked in Champaign and along the recruiting trail.
On Monday night, new Illinois head basketball coach John Groce officially informed Howard, the team’s previous interim coach and Weber’s assistant for the past five years, that he would not be retained on the new staff.
“Meeting with him, it was hard now. He loves this place,” Groce said about his decision to let Howard go. “He played here. He’s coached here. And that made it a little unique and different. His wife (Jessica) went to school here. So I had to take all of that into consideration. That’s part of the reason it’s taken me some time to make that decision. He was a very viable candidate.”
And Howard certainly was. In fact, I had been stumping for him to stay on board as an assistant after Weber was fired and before I even knew who the new head coach would be.
“But,” as Groce went to explain this week, “at the end of the day, for me, the thing I was most comfortable with was starting with that clean slate. It’s nothing against Jerrance. He’s done a good job. I know he’s going to do well regardless of where his life heads from here.”
From the looks of things so far, Illini basketball just may follow that same path under Groce, who has been quite impressive since he was hired following Illinois AD Mike Thomas’ much-convoluted and much-maligned coaching search.
From the moment he was named, fans and coaches began expressing concern over Groce’s recruiting prowess. But already, he has secured the loyalty of Illinois’ existing recruits (Crete-Monee senior Michael Orris, LaLumiere Prep junior Jalen James and Belleville East junior Malcolm Hill). He’s gotten Chicago Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn, a highly touted junior guard, to take an unofficial visit to Champaign when the previous staff couldn’t. And the current Illini players seem to have quickly warmed up to their new coach too with freshman Tracy Abrams saying during Tuesday’s team banquet, “I strongly think everybody is going to stay.”
Now, whether or not Abrams’ prediction comes true remains to be seen (don’t be stunned if there ultimately are some transfers). But, with the news on Wednesday that Groce is hiring current Missouri assistant Isaac Chew, a Chicago native, it appears he’s put together a young, diverse and quite impressive coaching staff.
In his online chat at IlliniHQ.com on Wednesday, Champaign News-Gazette beat writer Paul Klee wrote that new Illini assistants Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker, who both joined Groce from Ohio University, “are excellent, particularly in player development …If you watched last season, that’s what this team needs (dribbling, passing, shooting).”
The program also needs a true Chicagoan on staff, too. And Chew – a graduate of Wells High School in the Chicago Public League – fits that bill, finally giving Illinois its first assistant coach who’s a native of the Windy City since Jimmy Collins left Champaign way back in 1996.
As an assistant with Mizzou and a former AAU coach in Kansas City, Chew also boasts considerable roots in St. Louis and K.C. Walker, a former St. Louis University player, adds recruiting connections in both Chicago and Missouri. And Ford, who played college ball at OU, brings with him links to Ohio and Indiana in addition to a familiarity with Illinois (his brother, Geno, is the current head coach at Bradley University).
Perhaps just as significant is that Groce, only 40 years old, has added three assistants who graduated from college in 1999 (Chew), 2000 (Walker) and 2001 (Ford), putting each of them in their early-to-mid 30s and giving Illinois what has to be one of the youngest coaching staffs in the nation.
As for the decision to not retain Howard, who is only 31 himself, it’s fair to look back at the last time Illinois had a coaching change and recognize the different situations.
In 2003, when Bruce Weber took over after Bill Self bolted for Kansas and broke Illini hearts, the new coach retained assistant Wayne McClain, who greatly helped calm the nerves and avert transfers by rattled stars such as Dee Brown and Deron Williams.
The difference with that coaching change, however, was Self’s sudden departure was a shock to the Illini players’ system. Weber’s dismissal, on the other hand, was a long time coming this year. The players had time to emotionally prepare, and the need for Jerrance Howard’s steadying influence just doesn’t seem as necessary.
Instead, Groce gave Howard a hand and appears to be washing his own of the Illini past. Considering how messy that past is, that probably isn’t a bad idea. And so far with Groce leading the way, the future appears as if it could be bright.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.