Illinois focused on hiring Ohio’s Groce

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ohio’s John Groce appeared to still be the top choice Tuesday to take over the basketball program at Illinois, but two days after interest in the former Thad Matta assistant was reported the university said no deal has been reached.

But little or no news didn’t mean nothing happened in Illinois’ nearly three-week-old quest to find a replacement for Bruce Weber.

While news reports surfaced Tuesday and then were withdrawn that a news conference to announce a new coach was planned, former Illini player and ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo said turmoil at the university, such as last week’s resignation by President Michael Hogan, makes hiring a new coach a challenge.

And a university trustee — one of two who have said they’d like to see Illinois hire its first-ever black men’s head basketball coach — said that after worrying that the university had missed out on top-tier candidates, he’d suggested the school consider President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson.

Illinois spokesman Kent Brown said school workers started setting up the Assembly Hall arena for a potential press conference on the expectation that the school will announce something sometime this week, but said no deal has been reached with Groce or any other coach.

“We did it as a hedge that it will probably happen this week,” Brown said.

An Ohio spokesman declined to comment.

Weber was fired March 9 after a 17-15 season that ended three years of coaching under intense pressure and growing dissatisfaction among Illinois’ fans.

Since then a pair of high-profile coaches, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens at Butler, have said they’ll stay where they are rather than move from those mid-major programs to a Big Ten school that in 2005 lost the national title game against North Carolina.

Weber is the third head coach fired in less than four months by Thomas — along with football coach Ron Zook and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law — and the school is still looking for Law’s replacement.

Two trustees — James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver II — voted against a contract for Zook’s replacement, Tim Beckman, saying they were disappointed the school hadn’t hired its first black head football or men’s basketball coach.

The turmoil at the school stretches beyond sports. Hogan resigned under pressure last week after a less than two years on the job, much of that time spent in dispute with faculty over his demeanor and plans for the university. He’ll step down July 1.

Add all of that up, Bardo said in an interview Tuesday, and his alma mater can be a tough sell right now.

“I think part of the problem at Illinois right now currently is, it’s unstable. When your president retires or is forced out, whatever you want to call it, and your athletic director, his reputation,” Bardo said, explaining that Thomas has the reputation of being a tough AD who will fire people if he believes he needs to.

Taken together, Bardo said, “That’s not a good thing from a coach who’s already in a good situation.”

Oliver didn’t return calls for comment Tuesday, but Montgomery said he became concerned about the search for a new coach after learning Smart and Stevens would not be taking over at Illinois.

“I just became concerned that they were now getting into a second tier,” Montgomery said. “I sent a communication to the president and the chairman of the trustee board, Christopher Kennedy, giving them the resume of a gentleman from Oregon State University,” Montgomery said, referring to Craig Robinson, the Beavers’ head coach and Michelle Obama’s brother.

He said he also suggested that former Chicago Bulls and New Mexico State and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus, at one time considered to be a potential candidate for the job, would be worth a look.

But Montgomery insisted he isn’t unhappy with the search conducted by Thomas.

“I can’t complain about a process that offered the job to two of the premier coaches in college basketball and they were diverse,” Montgomery said. “So how the hell can you complain?”

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