Brace for the firestorm. Barring a shocking change, Ohio U. coach John Groce will be hired as Illinois’ new basketball coach, multiple sources said Tuesday, indicating it’s more a case of when, not if, the announcement will come.
A Champaign News-Gazette online report that a 3 p.m. press conference had been scheduled to introduce its new coach proved to be inaccurate. It did not change the expectation that Groce will be hired, though.
The anticipated hiring of Groce, 40, a relative unknown, already has been sending shock waves through Illini Nation and in the Chicago high-school basketball community.
“I’m hearing that it’s going to get done today or tomorrow,” a source close to the negotiations said. “I just keep hearing, ‘It’s done.’ Barring a last-second catastrophe, it’ll happen. I can’t figure out the delay.”
“It’s in the closing stages,” another source said.
Many Illini fans and boosters are expressing outrage that athletic director Mike Thomas couldn’t come up with a more proven coach to succeed Bruce Weber. Many prominent Chicago-area basketball leaders–who had never heard of Groce, let alone met him — also are voicing serious concerns.
“All I know is, it’s going to be an absolute firestorm for the guy when he’s hired,” a Chicago prep basketball analyst said. “It could get ugly for him with Chicago people. It’s going to be imperative that he’s careful in putting together a staff.”
After getting its hopes up for Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens, Anthony Grant or Frank Martin, or any number of other better known coaches, Illini Nation was in an uproar at the prospect of Groce taking the reins in Champaign.
Defenders point to Groce’s success in two of the last three NCAA tournaments, his background as an assistant of Thad Matta, who has recruited the Chicago area well, and Groce’s recruitment of Bobcats’ start D.J. Cooper, a South Sider.
Critics see Ohio’s modest 34-30 record in the undistinguished Mid-American Conference the last four years, and see trouble for Illinois.
“It’s disturbing to watch the criticism,” a source close to Thomas said. “And I think it’s been unfair. [Groce] has a pretty good resume. Part of [the weak MAC record] is what he took over. Considering what he’s got returning, we wouldn’t even be talking about that a year from now. They’ll probably the favorite next year.”
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