By Joe Henricksen
Very rare. That's all you can say when you talk about the public infatuation with the final piece of the Illinois coaching staff and what would be done with it.
Will Jerrance Howard stay? Does he want to stay? Do they want him to stay? Who will Illinois replace him with if he doesn't stay or they don't want him to stay?
The more-than-expected drama over an assistant coaching position played out longer than anticipated. And at the end of the day, John Groce wanted a staff of his own. And you know what? The head coach at the University of Illinois should have it his way. He's earned that right and it should be his choice, whether people agree or disagree with his decision.
Groce has every right to put together the staff he feels most comfortable with. And it's his responsibility, as it is with any head coach at any level, to find the best fit for the particular job.
There are people, including myself, who believe it would be beneficial and helpful to have someone with ties to Chicago and recruiting the state of Illinois. The belief here is that it simply speeds up the process of getting acclimated to recruiting the area and gaining support. That's just an opinion. And it doesn't mean go and hire any 'ol assistant coach with Chicago connections just to do it. There is a very small batch, a select few coaches who fit that description and can fill that void. There have been names floated around that were not even realistic when it comes to finding the "right Chicago guy" as this search has unfolded.
If Groce does indeed decide to go that route and hire someone with strong recruiting ties to the Chicago area and Illinois, it's his job to sort through the B.S., figure out what is fact and fiction regarding the various candidates and weed out the Chicago coaching pretenders. And from all indications, Groce has been doing just that. In fact, one of the final few candidates that is right in the mix would be an ideal hire and fit all the criteria.
But the whole Howard and Illinois deal was difficult. Jerrance Howard is a beloved and respected figure by fans, University of Illinois personnel and the current players. Howard is different than most assistant coaches around America in that he truly and honestly does have strong ties and a love for the program he works for. He's not just a hired gun, which so many assistants are as they attempt to move up the coaching ladder. He turned down overtures in the past to stay at Illinois. That made Jerrance Howard different.
Howard grew up an Illini fan as a kid. He played at Illinois and is a graduate, along with his wife Jessica. And he's coached at Illinois for the past five years, putting forth an endless effort and tireless work ethic. Howard had an easy time selling Illinois because he has been such a huge part of the university and the program. His passion for the program and Illinois showed.
Yes, Howard loved Illinois. In the near daily conversations I've had with Howard over the past two weeks, he reiterated that to me time and time again as the rumors swirled every which way. It ate at him knowing there was a real possibility his days at Illinois were over.
There was minimal contact between Groce and Howard throughout the process as the new coach tried to figure out just what he wanted to do with his coaching staff. The delay and uncertainty was very difficult for Howard, right up until the end Monday night.
A couple of weeks ago it wouldn't have been too difficult to sell Howard on staying at Illinois. He was looking for a reason to stay true and committed to Illinois, as he's always done, which is why he will and should always be welcomed back to the program and university.
At the end of the day, when you include all the different dynamics and circumstances, it's probably the best move for Howard and Illinois to part ways at this time. He will land on his feet quickly. But it will never be the job he loves the most.
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