It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini lost an embarrassing game to Rutgers after an impressive late-season run, and it looks like Groce might be on his way out. As rumors fly about AD Josh Whitman trying to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach, we’re examining a long list of potential candidates for the job. Despite their recent struggles, it’s important to remember that Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason.
So who are some candidates to replace the head coach in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew.
Bryce Drew is the epitome of Valparaiso basketball. He’s on the top of nearly every team record, although just this year he was surpassed for career points scored. He collected three conference tournament MVP awards as well as two conference MVP awards in his four years at Valpo. Despite his numerous accolades, Drew is probably best known as a player for his shot to beat Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament. Often referred to as “The Shot,” Drew knocked down a long three-pointer at the buzzer to upset the fourth-seeded Rebels and help Valpo advance.
After his illustrious collegiate career with the Crusaders, Drew became the program’s first-ever player drafted in the NBA draft. He played for the Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets over a six-year period, but his professional career never really took off like he hoped it would. He soon transitioned to the coaching game in the summer of 2005, when Drew was hired as an assistant coach at his alma mater.
After one year as an assistant at Valpo, Drew was elevated to “associate coach” and spent three more years in that position before being officially named the team’s head coach in 2011. He took the Crusaders to five postseason appearances in his five years in charge, including two second round NCAA appearances in 2012 and 2014 respectively. He won four Horizon League regular season titles and broke the Valparaiso record for wins in a season by accumulating 30 in his final year with the Crusaders.
Drew’s name became one of the hottest on the coaching carousel, and it was announced in late April of 2016 that Drew had accepted the opening at Vanderbilt. In his first season with the Commodores Drew has put the team squarely on the tournament bubble, after compiling some impressive SEC wins over the likes of Florida and South Carolina. His team will need to make a good run in their conference tournament to be assured of a spot in the Field of 68, but Drew has nevertheless already seemed to bring Vandy back to basketball success.
Drew’s name has been tied with Illinois in the past. He reportedly had interest in the job opening when Weber was fired, and again expressed interest last year if Groce had been fired. Drew also knows the midwestern recruiting landscape well, as Valpo often tried to pick up Chicago or downstate Illinois prospects. His brother, Scott Drew, was also reportedly interested in the Illinois opening back in 2011, but elected to stay with Baylor. So while there aren’t any direct past ties between Drew and the Illini, he and his family are very aware of Illinois’ basketball history and would probably listen if Whitman came calling. Another thing to consider is that Drew’s top assistant coach, Roger Powell, has a great history as a player for the Illini. He’s another connection Drew has to Champaign.
1. Success at Valpo
Drew is arguably the face of Valparaiso basketball, both as a player and a coach. He brought a tremendous amount of success to the team in his 15 years there on both sides of the sideline. As a coach, he brought the Crusaders to heights they had never before reached, including four Horizon League titles and five tournament appearances in his five seasons in charge. He appears to be bringing a moderate amount of success in his first year with Vanderbilt, too. He’s only coached at two schools in his whole career, but both have been relevant in the month of March. There’s no doubt he’s a quality X’s and O’s coach.
2. Age/Playing experience
Drew is only 41 years old, which, if he were hired at Illinois, would make him the second-youngest coach in the Big Ten. That’s a huge plus, as Whitman wants to make a hire that would stick for years to come. His young age doesn’t indicate inexperience, though. His playing career was arguably the best in Valpo history and his coaching career there was just as successful. Even though he’s only been in the coaching game for a little over a decade, he’s an experienced guy who’s seen a lot of success and winning for someone who’s only 41 years old. Age and knowledge is a huge plus for Drew.
3. Interest in Illinois
As mentioned above, Drew reportedly wanted to take the Illinois job last offseason if Groce were let go. He also had interest back in 2011 after Weber was fired. That means that Drew might pick up the phone if Whitman called him, which is a nice luxury to have if you’re Whitman. And since he’s so young, Drew will be around for a long time to come, so it’s nice to know he’s intrigued by the opportunity of coaching the Illini. Perhaps his top assistant can get in his ear and convince him even further to consider a move to Champaign.
1. First year at Vanderbilt
This seems to be the sticking point. Why would Drew leave Vanderbilt after less than one calendar year in Nashville? The Commodores’ players seem to love Bryce, and several prominent boosters have already made good, deep relationships with him. It’s not impossible for a coach to move from one program to another in one season, but it seems like a move that the stable and logical Drew wouldn’t consider making. Nevertheless, nothing can be completely eliminated from the equation.
The other negative with Drew is his salary. While his official earnings haven’t been released (because Vanderbilt is a private university), it’s fair to assume he’s making as much or more than the ‘Dores previous head coach Kevin Stallings made ($2.1 million). That, plus a pretty expensive buyout considering he’s only in Year One in Nashville, means that Drew won’t be cheap. Whitman might have the financial means to sway him towards Illinois, but the odds of this move happening were much higher last year when Drew felt like he had done all he could do at Valpo and before he was hired into an SEC program.
I can’t think of a third negative regarding Drew. He’s high on my personal wish list, and it seems like the only huge road block is his salary/stability with Vanderbilt.
I love Drew. He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s shown he can recruit and coach, and his top assistant is a former Illinois great. There’s very little baggage that Drew brings with him, which makes him one of the best options on the Illini’s list. The biggest road block will be the fact that he hasn’t even been with Vanderbilt for a full year yet, so his buyout won’t be cheap. But that’s both a negative and a positive; since he hasn’t been in Nashville for too long, that might mean he’s not as attached to the program as he would be if he were in his fifth or sixth season at the helm. I could see this move happening, and I would be elated if it did. It’s just a matter of how high Whitman puts Drew on his personal list. His brother might be an option, too. I personally believe Bryce will stay at Vandy, but I would love it if he made the jump to the Big Ten and joined the Illini.
Have thoughts on the chances of Bryce Drew becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!