It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini dropped another home game this past weekend to Penn State, which has the fan base growing very impatient with Groce’s failure to produce wins. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.
So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current San Antonio Spurs front office assistant Monty Williams.
Williams was born in Virginia and played high school ball in Maryland. Despite an east coast upbringing, he elected to attend Notre Dame for college after mulling over several impressive offers. He spent four years as the starting small forward for the Fighting Irish, earning an All-American honorable mention and averaging 23 points and 8 rebounds per game during his senior year. He was then drafted in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft by the Knicks.
He played for New York for three seasons before testing free agency and signing with the Spurs. After two years in San Antonio, Williams bounced around to several different teams including the Nuggets and Magic. After several sub-par performances in 2002 and 2003 with the Philadelphia 76ers, Williams retired as a player and explored options as a coach. He was hired as an assistant on the Trail Blazers staff in 2005 as his first-ever coaching gig.
He remained in Portland for five seasons before the New Orleans Pelicans (then called the Hornets) offered him a three-year contract to be their head coach. At the date of his hiring he was the youngest head coach in the NBA (38 years old). It was a quick ascendence up the ladder for the young Williams, who accepted remained the Pelicans head man for five seasons. In 2013 he accepted an assistant coach role with the U.S. national team for the 2016 Summer Olympics. In May of 2015, however, New Orleans fired him following a sub-.500 record in his five years at the helm of the Pelicans.
Williams wasn’t without a job for long, however. The Thunder offered him a role as an assistant head coach later in 2015. He stayed in Oklahoma City for two years, coaching NBA all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to enormous success. It was in early 2016 that a personal tragedy forced Williams to step away from the NBA, though, as his wife was struck and killed by a car that lost control in an automobile accident. Williams subsequently announced he was taking a hiatus from basketball to focus on raising his children. Luckily he was able to return to the NBA fairly quickly, accepting a role in the Spurs’ front office late last year. He is currently the vice president in charge of basketball operations for San Antonio.
None, directly. Williams played his college ball at Notre Dame, so he’s aware of how midwestern college basketball works, but he’s never coached or played in the Big Ten or anywhere in the state of Illinois. Williams coached NBA all-star Anthony Davis, who’s from Chicago, during his time with the Pelicans, so I suppose that’s an indirect connection to the Windy City. Nevertheless, if Williams were hired there would definitely be a learning curve for him and his staff to acclimate themselves to the Big Ten landscape due to his lack of previous ties.
1. Impressive professional pedigree
Williams has just about as much NBA experience as you could possibly ask for in a coaching candidate. He’s well-respected in the NBA community and clearly had the skills and coaching chops at a very young age to take over the reigns in New Orleans. Even though his Pelicans teams only went 2-8 in the playoffs during his tenure, Williams was regarded as “one of the best coaches and all around nicest guys” in the association. There would be no questioning his ability to coach or reach the players if he were hired at Illinois; his impressive pedigree speaks for itself.
2. Team USA ties
On top of the success and respect he’s earned from the NBA community, Williams was also a member of the Team USA basketball staff from 2013 to the Summer Olympics in 2016. Team USA is overseen by famous Illinois alum Jerry Colangelo, who works in the 76ers front office as well. Williams’ experience on a staff with the likes of Gregg Popovich, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski as well as coaching players like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James means he is extremely well-qualified if the Illini came calling.
3. Loved by players
This point can’t be underrated. Williams isn’t just a great X’s and O’s guy, he’s also one of the most liked coaches by any player who’s played under him. Just ask Kevin Durant, who spoke about the impact Williams has made on his life following the death of Monty’s wife:
“I love Coach Monty so much man” is something that you’ll hear from almost any NBA player who’s been on his team. Williams is just a generally likable guy, who commands the respect and appreciation from players that’s required to be a head coach.
1. Never coached at the college level
Even though he’s universally liked and admired, Williams carries some questions with him too. His biggest piece of baggage is that he's never coached at the college level. He went straight from his playing days in the NBA to an assistant coaching role with the association, meaning that the only time he’s ever been immersed in the college basketball experience was when he was attending Notre Dame. This isn’t always a huge concern; current Illinois football coach Lovie Smith was hired after spending most of his career in the NFL. But even Lovie had some previous experience on a collegiate staff. Monty has never had any, and that’s definitely his biggest hurdle if he wants a college job.
2. Never recruited
This obviously directly ties in with the first con. While there are opportunities for NBA coaches to “recruit” players during free agency, the transition to college recruiting is an enormous leap. It’s a brutal and 24/7 job to recruit high school players, so Williams would need to bring a great staff with him to Champaign to recruit areas like Chicago and St. Louis effectively. It’s a fair question to ask how many high school prospects would even be drawn to Williams, considering his poor record with the Pelicans and his lack of reputation in the state of Illinois. Just because he’s never recruited before doesn’t mean he can’t do it, but it would be a learning curve for Williams and his staff.
3. Lack of head coaching experience
Williams, while having been in the NBA for over a decade, has only been a head coach once. And that stint didn’t go well. Monty’s only been the head man in charge for the Pelicans, where he was fired after posting a .439 winning percentage after five years. He’s certainly shined in more behind-the-scenes roles, such as being an assistant on the Thunder staff and vice president of basketball operations in the Spurs front office. But the first time he dipped his toe in the head coaching waters it wasn’t a pleasant experience, which means it’s fair to question how he would fare as a head coach in a foreign environment (college ball).
I think Williams might be the most interesting name on our list. Like Lovie, he has a strong past in the professional league but doesn’t bring much college experience with him. That has already proven to not be much of an issue with Smith, so there’s certainly no reason to count Williams out. He’s coached some of the best players in basketball, from Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook to Anthony Davis. And yet it doesn’t seem like much is known about Williams, especially in the college circles. Would he command immediate attention and respect if he walked into a Chicago gym? I’m not sure his name is quite as eye-popping as Lovie. At the same time, he’d certainly bring a certain demeanor to the program that Illinois hasn’t had in quite some time. I would have very few qualms with the culture Monty would bring with him if he was announced as Illinois’ next head coach.
As for the likelihood of it actually transpiring, I’m not so sure. Whitman might reach out to him, especially if Williams supporter and U of I alum Jerry Colangelo has anything to say about it, but I’d put the possibility of him actually becoming the next Illini head basketball coach somewhere around 15 or 20 percent. One extra positive in hiring Williams would be his front office position with the Spurs. His current job allows him the flexibility to leave at any point, whereas any other position in the NBA would require the season to end first, which would be far longer than Whitman would be willing to wait.
Have thoughts on the possibility of Monty Williams? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!