By Joe Henricksen
At this point, the topic of conversation won't go away. Whether you check in with a high school coach in Illinois, an AAU coach or a player in this state, the first question asked is: Who is going to be the next coach at Illinois? So it's impossible not to keep tabs on it and keep writing about it, because it actually has been a pretty intriguing search.
Foolishly, too many people assumed that coach was going to be Shaka Smart, the wonderboy from VCU. The Shaka Stalking was downright crazy when the reality of it was so different from the public perception. It was just never going to happen if you were connected at all to anyone very close to the situation.
Really, the saddest part in this search is this repeated phrase from college coaches in the business: "No one wants the job."
Well, no one is a bit dramatic. But at this point it's true when you're talking about a coach who would clearly excite a frustrated fan base. And it's true when you're thinking of a coach who comes with assurances of being a no-doubt-about-it coaching superstar capable of giving Illinois an immediate presence and of putting the program at the level it desires for the foreseeable future.
Sure, there are coaches that want the job. It's apparent from everything I've gathered from sources that Ohio's John Groce, who led his Bobcats to the Sweet 16, wants the job. Who wouldn't want to make the jump from the MAC, a league dedicated to its football programs and pays basketball coaches poorly, to the Big Ten? It's the MAC! And now it appears Groce may have moved to the front of the line.
It's also clear former New Mexico State coach and long-ago Bulls star Reggie Theus would love the job.
But take a look at those two candidates in this surplus list of candidates that have either fallen by the wayside or never been given true consideration. These are the type of names that generate excitement for a fan base that believes it's arguably a top 15 or top 20 program in the country? And one that is actually willing to pay top dollar for the first time in any basketball coaching search?
Groce is a pedestrian 34-30 in the Mid-American Conference in four years, typically a NCAA one-bid league with finishes of sixth, fifth and two thirds in what has been a pretty poor league in comparison to other mid-major conferences like the Missouri Valley Conference and Horizon League. His overall record is 85-56. Yes, there are three NCAA Tournament wins under his belt, which is clearly the selling point on his resumé. But this was an Ohio team that probably wouldn't have even made the NIT this year if it didn't get hot and win the MAC Tournament.
But in the end, is Illinois really going to hire a mid-major coach with less credentials and a shorter resumé than the last mid-major coach it hired? Bruce Weber went 103-54 at Southern Illinois in a far superior league, won two Missouri Valley Conference titles, went to one NIT and two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16.
Today I asked a high-profile player in Illinois and a couple of high-profile high school coaches in Chicago, "What about John Groce?"
The reaction from one of the coaches and the player, after a pause, was "Who's John Groce?" Who is John Groce?!?!?!
The other coach said, "He's the bald coach who played North Carolina the other day, right? No way they can hire him ... Can they? They needed to hit a home run with this hire. Sounds like an infield single."
Then I checked in with some of the current young Illinois players' "people" regarding Groce. Well, um ...
And you think Vinny Del Negro is having a rough time? Wait till this hire goes down.
I will admit Reggie Theus was my favorite Chicago Bulls player for many years as a kid. Loved his whole schtick, the cool persona and all. I will even admit I watched him as coach Bill Fuller in the sitcom "Hang Time" just because he WAS Reggie Theus, my boyhood Bull! But his coaching track record consists of a 42-23 record at New Mexico State with one NCAA Tournament appearance after assisting Rick Pitino for a short time. And he compiled a 44-62 record as coach of the Sacramento Kings, along with an assistant job with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he hasn't been a head coach in over three years. Plus, at least up until the middle of this past week, he hadn't even received a sniff from athletic director Mike Thomas.
The Hoops Report believes it will be one heck of a sales pitch to Illinois fans in hiring any of the rumored candidates that remain after the last three Illinois hires consisted of: Lon Kruger (six prior NCAA Tournament berths and Final Four appearance at Florida), Bill Self (two NCAA Tournaments and an Elite Eight appearance in three years at Tulsa) and Bruce Weber (taking SIU to two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 berth).
But these are the names. And unless there is a seismic shift in this search process and some high-profile candidate comes out of nowhere screaming and yelling for the job, Thomas is going to need quite a sales pitch to try and sell the Illinois fan base.
For all the disdain directed toward Bruce Weber at Illinois in the second half of the season, I do wonder what the reaction would have been if you told Illinois fans the following back in February: "OK, fans, we're going to fire Bruce Weber at the end of the season. And we're going to hire ... TA-DA! ... John Groce."
Groce may be just fine as a coach. Maybe he will surprise and impress if indeed he is hired. But from a P.R. standpoint and pure perception? Whoa. You almost feel for him with the firestorm he will likely inherit if hired.
Now, I'm going to write something I personally can't believe I am about to write: Chris Collins as the next head coach at the University of Illinois.
The majority of readers, particularly Illinois basketball fans, have now just quit reading this blog and have exited from this webpage. Those of you that remain, hear me out, even though this is another name that has received zero attention from Thomas. And really, could it be a moot point with all the John Groce talk running wild at the moment?
But it has been on my mind and I want to get it out.
When the idea of Collins was floated around by some media members and Dicky V went crazy in promoting him as the perfect choice for the Illinois job, I admit I scoffed at it. I even tweeted the following: "I personally would never hire any assistant coach for any quality high-major job." (There are rare circumstances, of course, when the assistant has been in the program forever, people have seen his work up close, the program is running soundly, etc. -- i.e. Tom Izzo at Michigan State).
But as this search process has played out, I for some reason -- and I still don't know how it exactly happened -- kept coming around a little more and more to the idea of Chris Collins. And now, with the top dogs all running away from the Illinois job, I keep thinking about Collins even more.
I know, I know, I know ... Collins has done less head coaching -- zero, in fact -- than the other candidates I just wrote about. So, yes, I admit it's a little hypocritical and a contradiction in selling Collins as the next coach. And, yes, I've heard all the other complaints as well, including ...
Collins was an Illinois kid who chose Duke over Illinois. Yes, but it's not like he chose Iowa State over Illinois. It was Duke. And at the time, it wasn't the best of times with Illinois basketball in the early 1990s.
Collins will just use Illinois as a stepping stone to take over for Coach K at Duke. Maybe. But so did Bill Self with Kansas. But if that's the case, and Collins moves on to Duke, it means Illinois basketball must be in great shape and a much easier sell than what it's presently experiencing. It's a silly argument anyway. Just cross that bridge when you come to it.
The other concern I've heard is he has only had to recruit to Duke, which really isn't too tough of a task as an assistant. But you know what? Even with all the negativity being thrown around regarding the recruitment of Chicago, Collins wants and will recruit Chicago. He would not have a problem diving in there. Despite the obvious advantages of recruiting to Duke, he has been engaged in some recruiting battles against the very best college programs.
Then there is the notion that Duke assistants have not exactly set the world on fire when they've taken control of their own programs. This is where you roll the dice and hope the odds are in your favor and he becomes a better version of Mike Brey as opposed to Quin Snyder.
Plus, of all the names I throw out there to people, particularly fans, it has become clear Collins is the least favorable choice among fans. There is just an absolute distaste for Duke and some of that Dukie smugness and arrogance. Yes, yes, I know all the negatives. I hear them. I get them.
Due to where this search has gone, however, I have delved into the Collins thing here over the last week. Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens have no interest. Neither do Anthony Grant or Buzz Williams. Those are the four guys who, rather confidently, could elevate the Illinois program. There were others, including Leonard Hamilton, who just weren't interested.
But again, it's about what is left out there on the coaching tree of candidates. Collins wants the Illinois job. Though it's almost been embarrassing to hear the begging that has gone on from the Collins camp to get him involved in the Illinois hiring process, he does clearly want to be the Illinois coach.
What intrigued me about Collins when talking to a few basketball people was the impressive experience he has had assisting Mike Krzyzewski and the USA Basketball team staff with on-court duties since 2006. According to sources who know players on the U.S. National Team and spent time at a practice or two, Collins would often run parts of those practices. And he had the respect of the world's greatest players.
I called around to a few prominent high school and AAU coaches in Illinois and posed this question to them: Knowing where the search is at right now, what would you say if I said Chris Collins is the new Illinois basketball coach?
"With where that search is at right now, I think I would welcome Chris Collins."
"Well, like the other candidates I'm hearing that might be in line for the job, he doesn't do much for me. But at least he has some true Illinois ties."
"Crazy. I don't know anything about him because he hasn't been in our gym."
"What would I say? I would say he knows winning, comes from a winning pedigree. He has name recognition and he's an Illinois kid."
"I know he would have a great support system in Coach K, his father and many great basketball people for him to rely on. And he's an Illinois kid who everyone in Illinois has familiarity with."
"Say what you want about Duke, the name goes a long way. And Chris Collins is the associate head coach there. It might not be popular among fans, but you could do worse."
"He would be the classic high risk, high reward hire."
Yes, exactly. It's certainly a high risk. But at this point isn't that exactly where this hiring process has gone? Chris Collins. ... At this point, Jerrance Howard?
Roy Williams' first head coaching job? Kansas. Hmmmm....
EDITORS NOTE: Forget about no high-profile head coach wanting the Illinois job. There is one out there. After writing this blog and posting it, the Hoops Report received word from a great source late Sunday night that if Illinois were to reach out to Frank Martin, the Kansas State coach would be very interested in the job.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport