With apologies to the late, great New York City sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, I just couldn’t resist borrowing his old column format.
Nobody asked me, but when college basketball practice opened last Oct. 15, could any of us have predicted the name of Bruce Weber’s successor at the University of Illinois? I even doubt that Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent” would’ve found John Groce’s name in that jar of mayonnaise on the porch of Funk and Wagnalls.
Nobody asked me, but does it really matter if Groce was the first, third or sixth choice of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas? Get over it. Groce is the new guy in Champaign-Urbana. Give him a chance. But what’s with this Ohio University and “lowly” Mid-American Conference stigma? I mean, Lou Henson’s head coaching career started at, ahem, Hardin-Simmons. Who did the Illini Nation expect as their new coach? Phil Jackson? And I guess Illinois fans don’t recall (or care) where Kenny Battle – the above-the-rim sparkplug and most airborne of the Final Four 1989 Flyin’ Illini – came from: The MAC and “lowly” Northern Illinois.
Nobody asked me, but where does one separate the fact from fiction in the Illinois coaching search? On WSCR-AM radio Friday, Thomas denied that Alabama’s Anthony Grant, Washington’s Lorenzo Romar and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton were involved at all. Who came up with this unofficial U of I “wish list” then? A Board of Trustees member?
Sorry, that’s not their job. The search firm? No way. Sports information director Kent Brown? No, Kent’s too professional for on-the-record speculation with the media. Loren Tate? Just who is this downstate “Deep Throat?” Or was this drama and political intrigue a product of high-profile Chicago media types (who care more about the Bears, Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, etc.)?
Nobody asked me, but did anyone in Chicago or Champaign report that Illinois was 0-2 vs. Michigan this season and that Groce’s Bobcats went 1-0 vs. the same Wolverines in the NCAA as a No. 13 seed on a neutral court? Being a MAC fan, yes, I watched all three of Ohio’s impressive NCAA tournament games in March. One in-and-out three-pointer or a late D.J. Cooper free throw and Ohio beats North Carolina in regulation.
Defeating an ACC, a Big East (South Florida) and Big Ten (Michigan) opponent – how big-time would that have been? Why were erudite downtown scribes such as Rick Morrissey and David Haugh so obsessed with Groce’s 34-30 won-lost record (read: mediocre) in MAC games? Guys, can’t you see the forest through the trees, or that undersized, outmanned Ohio almost beat the three first-team all-ACC players in the No. 1 seed Tar Heels’ lineup?
Nobody asked me, but I’m relieved for the beleaguered and frustrated Bruce Weber, a decent man and good, blue-collar basketball coach.
Before his postgame meltdown after the Illinois-Purdue contest, I have to think Weber looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw – an underachieving, soft, sometimes undisciplined team that could not survive the rigors of the Big Ten grind. His players’ bad body language? You could see it on TV in your own living room. In recent years, too many Illini players were thinking about the good NBA life and leaving school instead of concentrating on the business at hand. Weber deserved better from his student-athletes. Yes, Groce must change that culture ASAP.
Nobody asked me, but just FYI Mr. Groce (and Mark Montgomery), Illinois State is the No. 1 men’s basketball program in the state. The Redbirds should have beaten NIT champion Stanford on its own home court in the tourney quarterfinals before losing in overtime (minus DeKalb’s 6-foot-10 Jordan Threloff, who was injured), but I promised not to write about subpar officiating (again).
Nobody asked me, but did anyone notice the juxtaposition of our state’s two Big Ten men’s basketball programs these past few weeks?
The PR Team of the Month? Northwestern, by far. By extending coach Bill Carmody’s contract, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips evaluated a difficult conundrum in the instant gratification world of major-college athletics and stayed true to his core values. Yes, Northwestern continues to be one of a handful of D-I programs never to earn an NCAA bid in men’s basketball.
But go back a decade to when the Wildcats finished 0-for-the Big Ten and “postseason” was not in the local vocabulary. Recent 20-win campaigns and four straight NIT appearances indicate program growth and relevancy even with NU’s antiquated facilities and rigid admission standards.
By stark contrast and bizarre happenstance, Illinois – as the state’s flagship institution – resembles a quagmire of revolving presidents, questionable administrative decisions, politics, egos, agendas and I haven’t started with intercollegiate athletics. While it is not with state tax dollars, in an extremely difficult and stressful economic time for higher educational funding in this state, Thomas is firing and hiring like its a Monopoly game. Perception or reality? Probably some of both. With the recent bad press, is it just me, or is the media doing a hatchet job on Illinois, or are the Illini imploding on themselves?
Nobody asked me, but I’m just a basketball fan.
• Mike Korcek is a former Northern Illinois University sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle.