The Fat Smoker
More than enough ink, real and virtual, has been and will continue to be spilled over the next head coach of Illinois Men's Basketball. I don't think that's a conversation I can reasonably contribute to. We'll hire who we hire. I honestly haven't formed a strong opinion on who that should or should not be. In large part, this is because I don't know what indicates whether a coach will be successful or unsuccessful.
It's clear today that John Groce was not successful. What I've been struggling with all year is the question of why that's the case. He missed on recruits. His offenses are stodgy. He gives extra weight to age and experience when determining playing time.
Despite those things, the theme that I am continually led back to is an inability to change. When thinking about John Groce and all of the thoughts we all have about what could or should have changed, the thing that sticks out is that nothing did.
In his second year as head coach, freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn couldn't crack a lineup that featured one dimensional players like Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand. It took half the season for either to see reasonable tick. A year ago, Aaron Jordan and DJ Williams were relegated to the bench to watch Alex Austin and Khalid Lewis run around playing at being Division I basketball players. This year Te'Jon rode pine for two thirds of a season for no obvious reason other than his youth. Five years and no change to the coach's approach to onboarding new blood.
A self-stylized "math guy," Groce's offenses regularly featured large proportions of two point jumpers, a shot all conventional analytics deride as the worst shot in basketball by a country mile. Groce's best offensive team was from his first year 2012-2013. Unsurprisingly, that team featured the lowest percentage of two point jumpers (34.5%) of any of his teams and the highest percentage (41.9%) of threes. No other Groce team has taken more three point jumpers than two point jumpers.
Pile these coaching miscues with a lack of success recruiting a top 100 point or center, and it becomes clear why Groce couldn't get the program back on track. We all knew that coming into this year, though. The question for me is: why wasn't he able to change?
When considering this question of why someone can't make obvious changes, I'm reminded of a book called "Strategy and the Fat Smoker." If you haven't read it, it's a business book probably not worth your time, and, like most books of its ilk, it can be summarized in a few sentences. The author, himself once an obese pack a day smoker, discusses why people can't make the obvious changes necessary for success. It was obvious to him that he was overweight and smoking was killing him. He knew that he needed to exercise and kick other bad habits. What he couldn't do was commit to disciplined change.
Now consider for a moment the obvious things in your life you could change to be happier and more fulfilled. If you're like me (or John Groce) that's not a difficult list to compile. I know what to do, how to do it, and why it will make my life better. Changing and forming new habits is the hard part. Yet, there are some pretty key differences between me and the head coach of a Division I men's basketball program. I have the luxury of leisure time to consider and implement changes to further my life and career goals. When the hell is a head coach with a young boys supposed to take the time to revamp the way he runs his program?
Take none of this as an excuse for John Groce's lack of success. He signed up to be a head basketball coach with aspirations to succeed at the highest level. He couldn't afford to not constantly reevaluate his approach and make necessary changes. He crashed because he wasn't able to change the engine while the plane was in flight. Not many can.
I guess this is leaving me to wonder what we can hope to find in the next coach to lead the Illinois Men's Basketball program. Is it the case that in an always on recruiting market and with players on campus nearly year round that a head coach must, in fact, be completely baked by the time he arrives at a high major campus? Can a coach afford to spend the time revamping his understanding of how the game should be played? Can he pivot to new recruiting strategies to close top recruits? If he's doing that some other guy is texting his prized recruits. Another coach is prescribing workouts and scouting opponents. Those guys are making measurable progress while the coach with the long term view sits around and thinks.
Taking the long term view of things is always difficult, but ever more so in a world where you can ALWAYS find some maintenance work to do. Text a recruit. Design drills. Draw plays. Develop your assistants. Create motivational wristbands. I don't think John Groce could find the discipline or fortitude to put those things away and focus on what he knew he had to. Changing his philosophies on offensive play and closing recruits.
So that's what I want. The ability to change. I want a guy who is willing to take a week every year, hole up somewhere, and evaluate if anything different needs to be done. I don't mean take a hard right every 6 months, giving everyone whiplash. I want a coach who can focus on the long term and make the necessary course corrections to move in the right direction. John Groce picked a direction, never looked up, and went nowhere.
The problem with that desire? Only Josh Whitman has a chance in hell of knowing whether a guy has that. And it's a slim chance. I just don't want another fat smoker.