By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Jerrance Howard and Wayne McClain didn’t hail from Chicago. Rob Judson, Tim Jankovich and Billy Gillispie weren’t from the city, either. And neither was Jay Price, Chris Lowery or even Tracy Webster, who was raised in south suburban Harvey.
Nope, during the University of Illinois coaching tenures of Bruce Weber and Bill Self – which combined to span 12 seasons – not a single one of their assistant coaches had ever called Chicago home. And the same thing applied to the staff of Lon Kruger, who spent four seasons seated along the Assembly Hall sideline prior to the Self and Weber eras.
Fact is, in order to find an Illini basketball assistant with true, deep ties to the Windy City, one has to blow all the way back in time to 1996, the final year that ace Chicago recruiter Jimmy Collins served as Lou Henson’s right-hand man. Yes, it’s been that long.
Until now, at least.
Of all the decisions that new Illini hoops coach John Groce has made thus far – and he’s had to make a few – the one that I’ve liked the best has been his choice to add a true Chicagoan to his staff.
Groce first attempted to accomplish that with Isaac Chew, an alumnus of Wells High School and the 1994 Public League-Blue West player of the year. That shot turned out to be an airball, however, as Chew left Illinois for a job at Marquette just a few weeks later.
But on Thursday, Groce officially named Chew’s replacement – and Illinois’ new recruiting connection to Chicago – by opting to go to Paris. Parham, that is.
“I am excited to welcome Paris Parham to our staff,” Groce said Thursday in a news release about the former Illinois State University assistant who played high school ball at Chicago Dunbar and was formerly head coach at city high schools Phillips and Morgan Park.
“I was impressed with what he helped Illinois State accomplish during his time there,” Groce continued, “and feel he will hit the ground running and help us immediately in the pursuit of our goals.”
If Illinois is to rise back into the upper crust of college hoops under Groce, those goals need to include gaining a recruiting foothold in Chicago again.
For ages, the city has served as the seeming cause of and the apparent solution to many of the Illini’s basketball woes. Its talent is plentiful and nearby, but ever since Collins left Illinois, recruiting Chicago’s best – such as Derrick Rose, Sherron Collins and Anthony Davis – to Champaign has proved to be as tricky for the Illini as a Republican winning an aldermanic election on the South Side.
A former draft pick of the Bulls and a Cook County probation officer For six years before he joined Henson’s Illini staff in 1983, Collins boasted deep roots throughout the city. During his time in Chicago, he also worked as a volunteer head coach at the city’s St. Thomas School and coached in the pro-college league of Chicago, which named him Coach of the Year in 1981.
And while Collins wasn’t a Chicago native – he actually hailed from Syracuse – with connections like that, he might as well have been. During the ’80s at Illinois, he used those relationships and city know-how to help Illinois reel in a series of Chicago stars, including Nick Anderson, Lowell Hamilton and Deon Thomas.
For years, I’ve wondered why Illinois hasn’t hired another assistant with similar city connections to help tie Illinois back in to Chicago.
Last year, Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald-Review recalled the recruiting struggles that Kruger experienced in the city, writing: “He had already been found guilty of a major infraction, of not being the popular long-time assistant Collins, of not being someone who knew all the secret handshakes in the Chicago Public League, of not being the people’s choice to replace Henson after his 21-year tenure.”
Those were wounds that neither Weber nor even the celebrated Self were able to fully heal during their stints at Illinois. And while one should surely be cautious about getting overly excited about a No. 3 assistant in Parham, it appears that Paris just may be a guy who can finally bridge that recruiting chasm between the CPL and Champaign.
“He’s the right fit for this job right now,” Rob Smith of Chicago Simeon told the Sun-Times’ Joe Henricksen last month. “The strong ties he has to Chicago are legitimate. I know he also has ties throughout the state and the Midwest, but when it comes to all the people in Chicago, he has great, true, long-lasting relationships with coaches, players, their families and this community. People respect Paris and genuinely want to help him.”
Which, in turn, could help Illinois – potentially in a major way.
For his part, Parham on Thursday said about his new job: “It’s a great feeling. I can’t put enough words together to explain how I feel … Growing up in Chicago I was an Illini fan and my dad was an Illini fan. Getting an opportunity to work there is an unbelievable feeling.”
And it will feel even better – for all of Illini Nation – if Paris can help get the city’s best to fall in love with Illinois again.
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.