By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
And one year ago, the Illinois basketball program, from its dismal regular-season performances to its disruptive postseason coaching search, wasn’t good.
But, it turned out that the Illini – and, most significantly, athletic director Mike Thomas – were indeed lucky. And in the end, that was good.
Very good, if you ask me.
On March 29 of last year, the University of Illinois announced John Groce as the 17th men’s basketball coach in school history. For the occasion at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Groce’s wife, Allison, showed up clad in an orange dress that she had coincidentally purchased six weeks before. When asked why she’d bought it, Allison simply said, “I love orange.”
Following Groce’s impressive introductory presser, I wrote, “There’s a great chance that Illini Nation will also come to love John Groce. He’s a good hire. With the right staff, he could be a very good one. In time, the man tied with Penn State’s Patrick Chambers as the youngest coach in the Big Ten (age: 40) could even become a great one. Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Well, we’ve waited nearly 365 days, and I think we now know that Groce very well might be a great coach. There’s little doubt that he was a truly great hire for Illinois, and – with hindsight being 20/20 – I’d argue that he was the best man for the job.
Even if Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens made him first look like the bridesmaid in the Illini’s coaching search.
After Thomas fired Bruce Weber, the Final Four head coaches of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler both reportedly turned down offers of more than $20 million to move to Champaign. Those high-profile rejections by Smart and Stevens turned Illinois into a national punchline and once Groce was finally hired away from Ohio, he walked into a tricky situation at Illinois.
His team had lost 12 of its last 14 games. Many viewed him as a deep fallback option. Several Chicagoland prep coaches raised an eyebrow at his hire. And an Illinois trustee even went as far as to label him a “second-tier” option.
Groce deserved more respect at the time. And after guiding Illinois to a hot start, weathering a severe mid-season storm, upsetting No. 1 Indiana and coming within a bad call and a few missed treys of reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, he’s now undoubtedly earned it.
Last year, when Thomas pursued Smart, the hottest name in the nation, I understood why. Smart is a great coach, and he certainly would have been a home run hire for the Illini. But, at the same time, I did wonder if his “HAVOC” style of frenetic full-court pressure might be a stretch for the full course of a season in the rugged Big Ten. And this past weekend, in the NCAA Tourney, Big Ten member Michigan stretched Smart’s VCU team until it snapped.
As for Stevens, hiring such a brilliant basketball mind also would have been a coup for Illinois. However – and perhaps I’m wrong – I’m not convinced that had Stevens decided to come to Champaign that he would have also then waltzed into Chicago and immediately plucked two recruits off Simeon’s talented roster.
You know, in the way that John Groce did.
Twelve months after everything seemed upside-down in the world of Illini basketball, all now seems right with the program’s future thanks to Groce’s playing style, his coaching acumen, his recruiting chops and, perhaps best of all, his energetic optimism.
Illinois basketball – and its passionate fans – desperately needed a shot in the arm. I think they ended up finding the perfect guy to deliver it.
And for Illini Nation, that’s both lucky and good.
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.