By Joe Henricksen
Maybe I should be accustomed to all of this as a diehard White Sox fan here in Chicago. We Sox fans, traditionally, may be the most pessimistic, hard-to-please sports fans around. Look at attendance figures for proof. Yes, the sky is always falling, as opposed to believing "this is the year" and "wait till next year."
But listening to all the knee-jerk reaction and unwarranted angst among Illinois fans lately makes me think we Sox fans have company.
It was totally understandable for that type of dialogue back in February and March, following another season in which Illinois failed to reach the NCAA Tournament and there was so much negativity brewing. Then there was a wild and somewhat controversial coaching search to replace Bruce Weber, though much of it was a media-created stir that got out of control. And there should be some concern over the fact there isn't nearly as much talent on campus as many fans believe there is. Yes, those were certainly some trying times and uncertainty for Illini faithful.
But these latest developments? Puh-lease! We're talking little blips on the radar that a few believe are program-damaging.
The Isaac Chew departure? The reaction was a bit over the top in some circles. For whatever reason, the Illinois assistant job seems to be one that is analyzed, debated and hyped more than others. Maybe it's that way at other schools in other regions of the country as well but we just don't see it firsthand like we do here. But assembling a "staff" that can work, develop and recruit together, bringing different strengths and characteristics to the table, is far more important than one single individual assistant. It should NEVER fall on one assistant to carry most of the recruiting workload.
Is Chew a quality assistant coach with potential and who brought strong attributes to the Illinois program? For sure. But irreplaceable? No. Is there a chance to lock up someone even better and who fits the needs of the program and adds a different dynamic to the present coaching staff than Chew did? Yes.
I will never shortchange the impact of assembling the ideal coaching staff. That should never be underestimated when projecting success. When a program starts to crumble in college basketball, there are typically several culprits and factors. But quite often the most significant--and easy to point a finger at--is the poor job a head coach does in putting together his staff for that particular job and that particular program. There are some bad staffs out there. And it generally always comes back to haunt the head coach and the program.
Was Illinois supposed to go nuts and match Marquette money for a coach with one year of high-major coaching experience, who was on the job for six weeks and has not exactly been highly involved with recruiting the city and suburbs over the years as an assistant? Yes, Chew has some Chicago ties from his high school days. But to say he has been an active player in recruiting the Chicago area over the years and is "tied in" is a stretch. He's done a terrific job in his various roles as an assistant and attacked other areas in the Midwest when it comes to recruiting and finding his niche at both Murray State and Missouri.
I like Isaac Chew. College coaches are clearly impressed as he has had multiple offers--from Illinois to Marquette to a couple of others--in the last two months. I think he's a bright, young, up-and-coming coach in the business. I consider him a friend since his days at Murray State. I understand why he went to Marquette, which I pointed out in a blog earlier in the week. I think he will do a good job for Buzz Williams and Marquette for what he can offer that particular program. But he was not going to be the lllinois recruiting savior. I believed coming in with the label of a "Chicago guy" and not necessarily being the prototype "Chicago guy" put added pressure and responsibility on his shoulders.
Which brings us back to the "staff"--any staff--getting it done as a whole.
Current Illinois assistant Jamall Walker isn't a "Chicago guy," as people like to say, based on his upbringing and background. But give this guy a little time--just as Illinois fans should do with head coach John Groce and this basketball program in the midst of a rebuilding project--and he is going to be absolutely fine. In less than two months, I am impressed with what I have heard, both from Walker in our one-on-one conversations and from those in the Chicago area basketball world.
Walker is a worker with characteristics that, again, with time, will connect, relate well and gain the trust of those throughout Chicago basketball.
Said one major, influential coach in the Chicago area even prior to the Chew departure earlier this week, "I'm more comfortable with Jamall [Walker] than I am [Isaac] Chew."
But these things don't happen overnight. It takes time. And for the sake of Illinois, Groce and his entire staff, I still believe having a "true" Chicago influence on the staff--the right guy, the right coach--is very important for the Illinois basketball program. It's my belief (and many others in the business) that at Illinois, you have to tag-team the city and suburbs, actually triple-team when you include the head coach. Give Walker and Groce another valuable weapon on the staff in dealing with Chicago to speed the process up, to gain more instant access, to help get kids on campus, and I would LOVE the make-up of this coaching staff.
Chew was a solid choice for Illinois two months ago. And while the actual number of ideal candidates for this job at this time is miniscule, Chew wasn't the only choice. And Illinois has a chance to get it right again with this next hire.
Then there is the fallout from the Jalen James news this week. Well, there shouldn't be any fallout. I personally, for several reasons, don't view it as a setback at all for Illinois. And the Illinois staff isn't thinking that way, either. Now, if Malcolm Hill of Belleville East and the Illini were to part ways? Well, then we may have some problems. That relationship appears strong, with the staff doing all the right things in securing Hill's commitment.
But for several reasons the Hoops Report won't detail or get into, Illinois and James severing ties is a good thing for all the parties involved. This doesn't slow things down one bit for Groce and his staff going forward in regard to their own expectations and needs they have in prospective recruits.
The sky didn't fall this week. The Assembly Hall roof didn't cave in. No need to panic. This staff has a lot of work to do going forward, and it's not going to be easy. But this staff definitely has a plan in place and a vision. The staff understands what it needs and what it wants. Now go and complete this staff, John Groce, and make it one that offers the best for the future of this Illinois basketball rebuilding project.
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