By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) It’s probably best to start this column off with an admission: I’m an Illinois alum. I graduated in 2007, so for a decade now, I’ve followed the program with wavering interest — the latter of which should come into focus as you read on.
Before my freshman year, Bill Self left the program for Kansas, admittedly a better post but a move nonetheless that left me in a state of angst. The Illini had lost a coach who had taken the team to the tournament in each of his three seasons but left a pair of freshmen behind named Deron Williams and Dee Brown.
The program then hired Bruce Weber, an affable guy whose success at Southern Illinois made him the top choice of then-athletic director Ron Guenther. It was said that Illinois was Weber’s dream job, an assertion that meant success wouldn’t prompt him to use the program as a stepping stone like Self (that’s not a criticism, just reality). Weber delivered: He took a group of mostly Self recruits to the national championship in his second season, notably making it to Final Four before Self did.
Weber went to six straight NCAA Tournaments, including his last two seasons in Carbondale, but had a sub-.500 season in 2007-’08, only the second such season of his career. He only got Illinois to the tournament twice more but nonetheless kept the integrity of the program intact before newly hired athletic director Mike Thomas unceremoniously fired him after the 2011-’12 season. Weber accepted the job at Kansas State, took the team to two straight NCAA Tournaments and has had the team in and out of the top 25 this season.
Thomas then swung and missed on attempts to hire Brad Stevens (now with the Boston Celtics) and Shaka Smart (now the coach at Texas) before finally hiring John Groce, a decision that has become the equivalent of dousing the State Farm Center in gasoline and throwing in a match.
This Illini program is barely recognizable, like the beast in a famous fairy tale. Only Illinois basketball is without a capable dance partner.
When Groce took the job he made promises of adding depth to the roster, which would allow them to push the ball up the floor and play an intense, in-your-face style of defense. We’re still waiting to see that, especially amid a season in which the Illini are ranked 13th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and last in opponents’ field goal percentage.
Groce’s biggest accomplishment as he’s now in his fifth year at Illinois? Taking the team to the 2013 NCAA Tournament with Weber’s players. That was his lone tournament appearance. Barring a dramatic turnaround that appears unlikely, Groce and the Illini (12-7) will miss their fourth straight tournament. He his tenure, he’s led the Illini to an 89-68 record (.603).
Since making the 1981 NCAA Tournament, Illinois had never missed it in back-to-back years until Groce got the job. A 91-68 loss at Purdue on Tuesday marked the 12th time Illinois had lost by 20 or more points under Groce. Weber had three such losses and Self one. Groce also hasn’t won back-to-back conference games since March 2015.
In the biggest moments, Groce comes up small.
And after those losses, Groce behaves in a surly and arrogant manner, including chastising a local reporter for asking the simplest of questions: What’s the message you have for Illinois fans?
It’s this type of behavior that has disconnected alumni from the program. No, I haven’t taken a poll, but I also have eyes. The team generally plays a game at the United Center every year. Under Self and Weber, the United Center was packed. Under Groce, the stadium is more than half empty.
And, perhaps, Groce can take solace in it: No one can stand to watch.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.