If Illinois basketball fans didn't know John Groce before last weekend, they're finding out now. Barring a last-minute breakdown in talks, Illinois was expected to hire the Ohio coach, according to multiple sources.
CHAMPAIGN -- If Illinois basketball fans didn't know John Groce before last weekend, they're finding out now.
Barring a last-minute breakdown in talks, Illinois was expected to hire the Ohio coach, according to multiple sources. He became the latest target to fill a vacancy after athletic director Mike Thomas fired Bruce Weber on March 9. Contacts in coaching, recruiting and within the Illinois athletic department were just awaiting Groce to be officially named.
"Unless something really breaks down, it will be him,'' said one source.
Groce is 85-56 in four seasons as Ohio coach, including a 34-30 record in Mid-American Conference play, where the Bobcats finished ninth, ninth, fifth and third in those four years. Groce made a name for himself with a berth in the Sweet 16 last week after winning a game in the NCAAs in 2010. But there's more to Groce's story.
He first built a reputation as a recruiter, and perhaps his best connection with the AAU basketball scene cost Illinois its top recruit in the Weber era.
While working as an assistant for Ohio State, Groce spearheaded the recruiting of former prep stars from the state of Indiana who carried the Buckeyes to the NCAA championship game in 2007. Groce is a product of Danville (Ind.) High School on the west side of Indianapolis, so it wasn't a surprise when the Buckeyes landed Greg Oden and Mike Conley (plus AAU teammate Daequan Cook) in 2006 under coach Thad Matta, the former Butler coach.
The connection was Travis Steele, who is Groce's step-brother.
From 2001 to 2006, Steele served as coach for the Spiece/Indiana Adidas Elite program. Steele ran the state's powerhouse club program while also serving as a Ben Davis High School assistant varsity coach in Indianapolis and attending Butler from 2001 to 2004.
After one season as an assistant at Wabash Valley College, the juco powerhouse in Mount Carmel, Steele had been hired as video coordinator at Indiana in August of 2006 under former Hoosiers coach Kelvin Sampson, who had also hired Jeff Meyer as an assistant.
Not coincidentally, Steele was the longtime coach of former Indianapolis prep star Eric Gordon, who had committed earlier to Illinois. Meyer was the college coach of Gordon's father.
"I'm glad they're on my staff,'' Sampson told Sports Illustrated at the time. "They're great guys, and they're helping us.''
When Gordon eventually de-committed and signed with Indiana, Illini fans cried foul. Gordon's only appearance the following season at Illinois was one of the worst scenes in Assembly Hall history. Gordon was the object of obscene taunts, and his family was harassed. The Illini later apologized.
Following the Hoosiers' collapse under scandal later that month and Sampson's removal, Groce and Ohio accepted transfer Armon Bassett from Indiana. Meanwhile, Steele landed at Xavier, where he finished his third year as a full-time Musketeers assistant.
This brotherly connection is an emotional red flag to a proud fan base, but Illini fans are just getting to know Groce.
FOOTBALL: Tommy Stewart hadn't heard of Pearl Harbor before the radio broadcast of a Chicago Bears game was interrupted by news reports on Dec. 7, 1941. Three years later, Stewart was stationed there when he received a recruiting letter from Illinois.
After the Gary, Ind., native returned from World War II, he played as a freshman quarterback/defensive back on a Big Ten championship team in 1946 that made Illinois' first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 1947. The Illini's 45-14 win over UCLA not only capped the survival of a world war but put Illini football back into gear.
"There will never be another season like it,'' Stewart said prior to Illinois' appearance in the Rose Bowl in 2008.
Stewart, 86, died Sunday after a battle with Parkinson's. As a prep coach at Champaign (Central) and Bement, he won 207 games in 33 years. His 1956 and 1966 teams posted 9-0 records in the days before the state playoffs were held.
BASEBALL: Illini righthander Kevin Johnson earned his fourth consecutive win in the Big Ten opener Friday with an 11-3 victory at Nebraska in the Big Ten opener, but the Illini (11-9 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten) lost the last two games in the series. Illinois plays at Illinois State Tuesday (4:30 p.m.) and Bradley Wednesday (6 p.m.). The Illini host Mississippi Valley State Friday in the home opener. Sophomore Jordan Parr (Chillicothe IVC) leads the Illini in hitting with a .373 average.
IN OTHER NEWS: In women's gymnastics, Illinois hosts the NCAA Champaign Regional, earning the No. 4 seed at the event. No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Denver, No. 5 Kentucky and No. 6 Illinois-Chicago also compete in the regional at Assembly Hall on April 7 (4 p.m.). The top two teams, along with the top two all-around competitors not on an advancing team, will receive automatic berths to the NCAA Championships on April 20-22. ... The Illini football family fun fest is April 21 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Memorial Stadium. Fans can meet the coaching staff and players. Drills and competitions will be available for youngsters age 13 and under in addition to inflatable games such as the bounce house, bungee run and giant slide. Admission and parking is free.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.