Former Illinois guard and assistant coach Jerrance Howard is a popular fixture with his bubbly personality and recruiting expertise. New Illini head coach John Groce considered him strongly to be his assistant but decided to move in another direction.
"Obviously, it's been a difficult decision. I've had two or three routes I could go. I have made the decision that I will hire outside. I told him last night. He responded very well; he's a class guy. He was terrific.
"A lot of people have asked me a lot of questions about Jerrance Howard over the last week. I certainly considered him very, very strongly. His work speaks for itself; he's done a great job coaching, recruiting. He's a former player, and this place means a lot to him. That was obvious from the three conversations he and I had together.
"At the end of the day for me, we're starting with a clean slate. I know Jerrance is gonna be successful no matter who he's working for or where he goes. Obviously, as a part of the Illini family, we're going to support him as much as we can in this time of transition for him and his family."
It can be difficult to blend members of two different staffs together. Groce always talks about finding the right fit, and that usually means starting over. Howard did cause him to reconsider that approach.
"You know, I wasn't as concerned about that. I was initially, but then after meeting with him, it was hard. He loves this place, he played here, he's coached year, his wife went to school here. That made it a little bit unique and different.
"So I had to take all that into consideration. That's part of the reason why it's taken me some time to make this decision. He was a very viable candidate.
"But at the end of the day for me, the thing I felt most comfortable with was starting with a clean slate. That's nothing at all against Jerrance. I know he's going to do well regardless of where his life heads from here."
One can only read between the lines, but it appears Howard doesn't fit the combination of personality, knowledge, experience and other attributes that Groce seeks in his third assistant position.
"It's a holistic mindset for me. Obviously, I didn't know him until I met him and sat down and had three conversations here over the last week. It's not his fault or my fault. Normally, I would just move in the direction of having my own guys. But he's an impressive guy. I had to weigh all those things in the decision. But at the end of the day, I just felt like I needed to start from scratch.
"I have some ideas which direction I want the staff to go. The one thing about me, we're going to be aggressive about it and continue to analyze it in terms of what's best in putting the whole staff together.
"I think sometimes what gets lost in this deal, people forget that a staff is like a team. You wouldn't recruit a team of 13 point guards. I get a lot of candidates brought to me that people say would be good. I say, 'You're right, but this is what I have already. This is what this guy's strengths are, and here's what this guy's strengths are, and I need to complement that.'
"I've got five total positions on the staff, so I'm looking at it holistically. How do all five fit together? It doesn't mean that someone brought to me isn't a viable or good candidate. But it may not be the right fit for the staff. So all those things are taken into consideration.
"I'm hoping to get that done sooner than later. I've got an idea what direction I want to go these next couple of days."
What is the right fit?
"The four areas that I look for when it comes to the assistant coach positions are strengths in recruiting areas; ability to coach, which includes game management; development of players is a big piece of this deal, what's their track record developing players? And the ability to scout the way that we do things in terms of how we scout opponents, how comfortable they are in presenting that to the team.
"So all those things get thrown in there. And then obviously integrity, loyalty, work ethic, are they a grinder...all those things come into play. I have to gauge all that as I put the thing together."
Whatever Illini Nation thinks of Groce's decision-making, it is obvious he's willing to make tough decisions that have a direct bearing on his future success.
"When you're leading something, when much is given, much is expected. You have to be willing to make hard decisions.
"I try to make decisions that are the best for the University of Illinois in this new position I'm in, what's best for the basketball program within the university setting, and I also look at it through that individual's eyes. I try to put myself in their situation and feel their pain.
"In that order, the University of Illinois, the program and the individual. I do look at all three of those very carefully, very closely and diligently in order to make a decision, especially for those people who are going to be, as I say, 'on the bus.'"
Besides the third assistant coach, Groce is also looking to hire people for a couple other positions. He knows what he wants, even if he's unsure of their exact titles.
"I have a pretty good idea on what direction I want to go on a couple of them. I've just got to get on the same page, have some further conversations with them on what I expect to make sure it's a good fit for them as well as us. Their titles are gonna be based on who we get and how they fit. Those titles could change, but I'll have more on that hopefully sooner than later."