Illinois coaching has been in flux in a big way this past year among the major sports. The hiring of new head football coach Tim Beckman and his staff was an adventure unto itself. But in the end, Illinois landed a coach who was all-in for the Illini.
Beckman brought a lot of intensity, effort and fire to the Illinois football program, and UI Athletic Director Mike Thomas even joked that "caffeine was afraid of him."
Fast forward now to March. Following a hot start to the season highlighted by a win over Ohio State at the Assembly Hall, Illinois's basketball season went into a tailspin. And after an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament via a loss to Iowa, Mike Thomas decided that a change was in order.
Immediately Illini fans turned all their attention to Shaka Smart, the head coach at VCU. Smart would no doubt be a great fit at Illinois. Young, charismatic and energetic with postseason success already in his brief career as a head coach. But, just a couple days after the Rams were eliminated, Smart came out and reaffirmed his allegiance to VCU. On to the next one.
The next wave of coaching chaos brought about discussion of another young coach on the rise in Brad Stevens. Stevens took his Butler squad to two straight national runner-up finishes in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011. But again, Stevens decided to stay put.
Compound the frustration of missing on the fans' top two targets with facing the of hiring of another coach from the MAC, and fan patience wore thin to a breaking point.
But are Illinois fans overreacting? Take it or leave it, but here's what Illinois fans should know about Groce:
First, at only 40 years of age, Groce has been a coach at the Division One level for 16 years. The last 4 have been as the head coach at Ohio University. Ohio University may have been his first head coaching position, but prior to that Groce spent 4 years, including his last two as an Associate Head Coach, at Ohio State University under Thad Matta. Continuing into his past, Groce spent 3 seasons at Xavier, one at Butler, and four at North Carolina State.
In other words, Groce has been coaching at the Division One level as long as or even before Smart or Stevens graduated from college.
Groce's first season at Ohio wasn't an easy road. His team finished 15-17 with a significantly better record at home than on the road. But one key factor to his 2008-2009 campaign was the year guard Armon Bassett had to sit due to NCAA transfer rules.
Back the next year with Bassett in the mix, Ohio showed significant improvement, amassing a 22-15 record including a MAC Tournament title and a berth to the NCAA tournament in which they upset heavily-favored Georgetown in the opening round.
:2010-2011 brought a 19-16 record in what was a bit of a rebuilding year for Groce. Obviously Groce would have loved to get back to the tournament, but what he did during that season in developing players like Walter Offutt and Chicago native D.J. Cooper set the stage for the team's 2011-2012 campaign.
And then in 2012, Groce and his Ohio Bobcats enjoyed their best season in a number of years. Groce and Ohio won the MAC Tournament Title and made a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament before falling to number one seed North Carolina in overtime en route to 29 victories, a school record.
Even as an assistant, Groce was instrumental in Ohio State's success in the late 2000's. As a recruiter, he was instrumental in bringing Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook and David Lighty, who along with Groce led Ohio State to a national runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
2013, 2014, and even 2015 are very crucial years for recruiting in the state of Illinois. If Groce's track record at Ohio State is any indication of his potential as a recruiter, he won't be afraid to go against the heavy hitters in pursuit of top talent.
Former Chicago players Evan Turner and D.J. Cooper, both recruited by Groce, show that he's not afraid to get in the mix in Chicago recruiting. Of course he'll need to choose his assistants wisely, but Groce doesn't back down from a challenge.
Groce is known as a relentless recruiter, a perpetual student of the game, and a coach who brings intensity and passion to everything he does. Still not sold? Just look at the reactions of his former players when they found out Groce would be taking the Illinois job.
Evan Turner (former Ohio State guard): "I hear my old college assistant coach may be getting the job at U of I. If he does then the Illini will have no problem getting Chicago players. Coach Groce's offense is legit and built for guards. The Big Ten is going to get better in the future."
Walter Offutt (junior Ohio guard): "I love you Coach Groce. I hope you know that. This is tough."
D.J. Cooper (Ohio point guard and Chicago native): "Just know that if Coach Groce goes to U of I my (guy) D.J. Richardson will be in heaven."
Those are just a few of the accounts of his former players. It may take Illinois fans some time to warm up to Groce, but with the right staff and a vote of confidence from the fans, Groce has all the tools to succeed at Illinois.
It may not have been a pretty process, but everything happens for a reason, and John Groce may end up being a blessing in disguise for Illinois.