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Arvia: Local coaches weigh in on Illini hire

New Illinois men's basketball coach John Groce speaks during his introductory news conference Thursday Champaign. | RobScholz~AP

New Illinois men's basketball coach John Groce speaks during his introductory news conference Thursday in Champaign. | Robin Scholz~AP

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“I don’t think the Public League is as monolithic as the newspapers portray it. ... Each coach, ultimately, is going to look at the best situation for their own kids.” - Mount Carmel coach Mike Flaherty, on the impact Illinois hiring John Groce.

Updated: May 2, 2012 8:18AM



In what, by John Groce’s timeline, was the opening day of negotiations that ultimately led to his hiring as the University of Illinois men’s basketball coach, several Southland high school coaches milled about at the SouthtownStar’s All-Area banquet on Tuesday and discussed what Groce was not.

“If they wanted a black coach,” Marian Catholic’s Mike Taylor said, nodding toward Bloom’s Jasper Williams and Hillcrest’s Don Houston, “They could’ve gotten one of those two guys.”

Taylor was only half joking. St. Rita’s Gary DeCesare was joking not at all when he said, “I think they skipped one of the best choices out there. Robert Smith of Simeon is a great candidate.”

That a high school coach — regardless of hue — wasn’t considered didn’t surprise DeCesare, who came to St. Rita in 2009 after four years as DePaul’s Associate Head Coach.

“The athletic directors, going to the podium, don’t want to announce a high school coach,” DeCesare said.

It’s hard to argue otherwise. When Illinois entered its post-Bruce Weber phase with the stated goal of hiring an African American, it was clear Illini power-brokers were more concerned with how they’d play in front of the press than against one.

Of course, both so publicly setting and failing to reach that goal only further tarnished the image they tried, however wrong-headedly, to improve.

Or, as Taylor said, “You want the best possible person. That’s where you start the search, and that’s where you end the search.”

So Illinois embarassed itself. But the guess here is that the bungling preceding Groce’s hire won’t impact his ability to do the job to the degree that some imagine.

If you’re an Illinois fan worried that the Chicago area’s best talent will ignore the Fighting Illini because the wrong guy got hired, stop.

“I don’t think the Public League is as monolithic as the newspapers portray it,” Mount Carmel coach Mike Flaherty said.

Um, monolithic?

“Of one mentality, of one thought process,” Flaherty said. “Each coach, ultimately, is going to look at the best situation for their own kids.”

Mount Carmel grad Tracy Abrams was one of four Chicago freshmen on Weber’s last Illinois team. Flaherty talked to the guard, who started 19 games for the Illini, when he was home late last month on break.

“He said the whole group they brought in last year hung out together,” Flaherty said. “They think next year they’re going to be better, even if they lose (Meyers) Leonard.”

Rich South’s Scot Ritter, who coached Crandall Head before the guard played at and later left Illinois, thought the Illini would remain a high-profile destination for Chicago-area players.

“I don’t think (a new coach) will affect anybody on the South Side,” he said. “I’m an Illinois guy. I liked Bruce. I’d hope we’d all support our state school.”

Andrew’s Mike O’Halloran suspects Illinois’ new coach will be treated fairly by city and suburban coaches.

“You can’t say ‘no,’ ” he said, “without giving a coach a chance to prove himself.”

Still, Groce will have some work to do.

“Hopefully,” Thornwood’s Paul Slavich said, “(Groce) can go recruit the city and suburbs. there’s a lot of talent in those schools, and it’s not going to Illinois.”

To be successful, Houston said, “It’s got to be someone who can get along in the city. It doesn’t matter what race he is — but it he can’t compete in the city, he’s going to miss on special kids who can make your program special.”

Williams echoed Houston’s thoughts, and added a suggestion for the new Illini coach, saying, “He’s going to have to hire some assistants with city ties.”

I’m not so sure.

While it would be great for Illinois to be the first option for Chicago kids, recruiting only Chicago or only Illinois isn’t the way to greatness in college basketball.

There are 60 players on the official rosters of the last four teams standing in the NCAA tournament. Fifteen of those 60 are attending a university in their home state.

So yes, Groce should make inroads in Chicago. But road doesn’t end there.



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