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Morrissey: Illinois fumbles chance to hire its first black coach

John Groce

John Groce

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Updated: April 29, 2012 8:21AM



The University of Illinois has had 16 men’s basketball coaches since it began playing the sport in 1906. All of them, from Elwood Brown to Bruce Weber, had a skin pigmentation that resembled Cream of Wheat.

On Tuesday, the school was preparing to hire its 17th coach, John Groce, who is as white (and shorn) as a cue ball.

Apparently, we live in a state with the racial diversity of Iceland.

It was one thing for Illinois to whiff on Shaka Smart, the very successful coach at Virginia Commonwealth, which is what new athletic director Mike Thomas did. Smart, who is African American, had his reasons for turning down the big money Thomas threw at him. So you move on, and Illinois’ athletic director did, however haltingly.

But somewhere between the wooing of Smart and the apparent surrender with Groce, the Illini abandoned what appeared to be their desire to do the right thing. That would be hiring the first black basketball coach in school history.

If Illinois were about to announce Mike Krzyzewski’s hiring, you’d shrug and say, what’s an athletic director supposed to do? If you can get Coach K to come to Champaign, you get him, even if you previously had vowed you absolutely had to have a black, red or plaid coach.

But this is John Groce, a relatively obscure coach who has done fairly well at mid-major Ohio University. You don’t abandon the opportunity to get with the times because he is standing in front of you.

There is not a qualified African-American college coach in the United States who can lead the Illinois program? Really?

There is not a top-notch black college assistant who would love the chance to roll up his sleeves and make the Illini into something special? Really?

This is not a matter of running out of competent black candidates. This is a matter of abandonment. It’s an abandonment of principles and values.

Football was bad enough

Some members of Illinois’ Board of Trustees reportedly were upset when Thomas hired a white football coach to replace Ron Zook. They should be doubly upset about Groce’s impending hire, given the basketball program’s higher profile.

A lot of people want to move past race in this country. Who doesn’t? It’s a noble idea. But there seems to be this notion that just because we have a black man in the White House, everything is equal now. And maybe that’s part of what has happened as Illinois stumbled through the hiring process: Because we’re in a ‘‘post-racial’’ moment in our history, perhaps the Illini got a little lazy. They took a stab at a black coach or three and gave up. Skin color doesn’t matter anymore, right?

But when the majority of the people playing basketball at the Division I level are black and you’ve never had an African-American coach pace the Illinois sideline in a hideous orange sport coat, you’re kidding yourself. Skin color matters by the jarring absence of it.

Illinois has indeed moved past race; the problem is, it never stopped long enough to notice how bad it looks to have gone more than 100 years without a black coach. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the state’s black population is 14.5 percent. The school’s undergraduate black enrollment is less than 7 percent.

At what point do the whiteout conditions on Champaign’s sidelines become a slap in the face? At this point. In essence, the Illini are saying that after more than 100 years of basketball, they still can’t find an African American to coach a sport that is made up primarily of African Americans.

How is this possible in 2012?

Necessary and overdue

The indignation here has nothing to do with the Chicago Public League and what appears to be its long-standing disgust with the state university. This is much, much bigger than a group of coaches who believe the Illini haven’t paid homage to them over the years. It’s certainly not about a black college coach being better able to recruit in Chicago than a white coach.

No, this is about right and wrong.

Groce might be a great guy, a wonderful coach and the kind of man who can heal a fractured nation. He might turn out to be the best leader in school history. But that’s not the point.

You can drive from Chicago down I-57 toward central Illinois and not long after start to feel you’re in a different world. Traffic thins. Cornfields start to whiz by. And it gets whiter. It looks like it’s about to get whiter still.



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