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5 ways John Groce could revive Illinois basketball program

New Illinois coach John Groce could take cue from John Calipari Bill Self if he wants revive Illini basketball program.

New Illinois coach John Groce could take a cue from John Calipari and Bill Self if he wants to revive the Illini basketball program. | AP

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Updated: April 2, 2012 1:20PM



Can John Groce revive Illinois basketball?

Sure, he can. But tonight’s national championship game — with John Calipari matching wits with Bill Self for the second time in four years — is a reminder that standard operating procedures won’t get the job done. You have to not only approach the fine line of fair play, you likely have to be willing to cross it every now and then. A firm handshake and good eye-contact are still important in building ‘‘relationships,’’ but a wink still is the ultimate closer.

It’s not easily done for a program like Illinois’. Of the 20 Final Four teams in the last five seasons, the only true second-tier programs — in-between the traditional/established powers and the mid-major upstarts — are Memphis (2008), Villanova (2009) and West Virginia (2010).

Memphis hired Calipari, who has had two Final Four appearances vacated by the NCAA for various improprieties. West Virginia hired Bob Huggins, who was forced to resign at Cincinnati when the weight of academic malfeasance, player arrests and his own DUI became too much for the university to bear. Villanova hired Jay Wright, a virtual saint compared to Calipari and Huggins. But for the record, it took him eight years to get Villanova to the Final Four.

So with that in mind, here’s a real-world look at what John Groce has to do to reach the top tier of college basketball:

1. Hire Sonny Parker as an assistant coach/director of basketball operations. A former NBA player, the father of Simeon superstar Jabari Parker is as qualified as Alaska prep coach Ronnie Chalmers was when he was hired by Self as ‘‘Director of Basketball Operations’’ in 2005 — three months before his son Mario began his freshman season at Kansas. (Ronnie Chalmers left Kansas ‘‘to pursue other interests’’ five months after Mario Chalmers left Kansas for the NBA in 2008 — just as Ed Manning left Kansas months after Danny Manning in 1988; and Lafayette Norwood left Kansas months after Darnell Valentine in 1981.)

2. Hire Chicagoan Michael Irvin as an assistant coach/video coordinator. Groce is certainly familiar with this tack, as his stepbrother, Travis Steele, was an AAU coach who was hired by Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson in 2006 — and in an incredible coincidence, Eric Gordon, the prep All-American who played for Steele’s AAU team, reneged on a commitment to Illinois and signed with Indiana.

As the CEO of the AAU Chicago Fire, Mike Irvin fills several ‘‘connection’’ needs for Groce. A son of the late, great Mac Irvin, he’s a member of the royal family of Chicago’s South Side; he played for King, South Shore and Carver high schools; he has ‘‘relationships’’ with the best players in Chicago; and — this is the best part — his connection to the Fire and its roster of talent will never die because his family will maintain control of the AAU program.

3. Hire prominent AAU coaches as ‘‘speakers’’ at your summer basketball camp. This is a great way to not only fund youth basketball but develop ‘‘relationships’’ with local basketball power brokers that could pay off in the future. As Self once told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal in his defense, ‘‘I want to make it very clear I do not think there’s absolutely anything wrong with having a relationship with people that have contact with prospects.’’

The NCAA didn’t agree. Abuse of ‘‘package-deal’’ practices — like Calipari hiring Tyreke Evans’ personal trainer as an ‘‘administrative assistant’’ at Memphis — caused the NCAA to prohibit schools from hiring ‘‘associates’’ of recruits for non-coaching positions in 2009. But there are ways around everything. Staying ahead of the law is a key to success in this business.)

4. Don’t let the NCAA’s silly academic requirements get in the way. Long before Calipari looked the other way when Derrick Rose’s SAT score was in question, he had a pipeline through Laurinburg Institute, a prep school in North Carolina with a such a dubious history of questionable academic records that the NCAA stopped accepting grades from Laurinburg as eligibility requirements.

Stuff happens. Darrell Arthur won a national championship under Self at Kansas, but his Dallas high school had to forfeit two state championships because of a grade-changing scandal that Arthur reportedly benefited from. That Arthur probably wouldn’t have been accepted at Kansas was a moot issue. As one KU athletic department official said at the time, as long as the NCAA clears them, they’re good to go.

5. Get rid of any dead weight on your roster. It’s a fact of life in college basketball that coaching changes bring roster changes regardless of whether a player is on scholarship. When Calipari went to Kentucky in 2009, he signed prep All-Americans John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, which gave him 15 scholarship players — four over the limit. After watching his inherited players scrimmage in a ‘‘workout,’’ Calipari convinced so many of Billy Gillispie’s players they would be better off elsewhere, he actually had room to offer a scholarship to a local walk-on. But nobody ever talks about that.

It’s no surprise that coaches like Calipari and Self are playing for the national title again. As they say in the big city, it’s all about ‘‘relationships’’ — though ‘‘relationships’’ often can be traced back to shoe-company money. (Longtime AAU honcho Larry Butler is as nice a guy as there ever was, but doesn’t seem to have the same ‘‘relationships’’ — or influence on the recruiting scene — since he parted ways with Nike in 2008.)

Based on his history with Thad Matta at Xavier and Ohio State, John Groce surely knows the deal. ‘‘Coaching ‘em up’’ like Bo Ryan does at Wisconsin can keep you in contention in the Big Ten and get you to the Sweet 16 on a regular basis if you’re good at what you do. But if you want to get beyond that at Illinois, you better hone your ability to develop ‘‘relationships’’ — wink-wink — into an artform. That’s how the big winners get it done.



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