Summer Conversations – John Groce (Part II)

Part II of my chat with Coach Groce. Part I is here. There won’t be a Part III as I suggested yesterday – I got on a transcribing roll last night and pushed through the entire interview. One part would have been too long. Three parts is too short. A two part interview is juuuust right.

Have you ever experienced – as an assistant coach or as a head coach – a year with turnover like you’re facing now with nine new players?

Yes – from year one to year two at Ohio. I think we brought in seven new players, so two less than what we are facing now. You know, sometimes it happens. You can kind of anticipate it. You can tell a little bit. We had three guys leave at the beginning of the spring – I love those guys. They were very valuable in year one. At the end of the day, from a fit perspective and what they wanted to do long term and what their goals were, when we talked to them, maybe (staying) didn’t make the most sense.

But I wish those guys nothing but the best. They were phenomenal – even the guys who didn’t play. Every kid wants to play, and those guys – their attitudes were terrific. So I’m thankful for that. I’ll be anxiously following their careers to see how they do. I’m pulling for them. I told them “look, I’ll be rooting for you. I want you to do well.” So I hope things go well for them.

So you have four scholarship guys returning – only three who played last year, plus Rayvonte who has been sitting out – I guess you’re obviously looking to those guys to lead the team?

Yeah, we’ll see whether they can handle it or not. I hope they can. I know that Tracy and Nnanna did a really good job I think as captains in year one – those guys return. But this is going to be a little bit different for them. As soon as you add or delete one player, I’ve always said that the dynamic of any team changes. And the more additions and deletions you have in any organization, company, or team, there comes a learning curve.

It’s probably too harsh to say “starting over again” like it was in when we came in for year one when everything was new for everyone. That’s probably a little too harsh because Tracy played 30 minutes per game; Nnanna played 28 minutes per game. Ray Ray sat out the whole year but he did everything with us. LaTulip was there for all of the same things. And Joe is a 22 year-old fifth year senior. I’m thankful for all of that.

So I don’t know if it’s quite like completely hitting the reset button, but with nine newcomers there’s no question there’s a learning curve there. There’s a learning curve not only for the players, but for the staff as well, because even in recruiting, as much as you recruit them and you get to know them, you don’t get a chance to be around them on a daily basis until they play for you. Until they’re on campus.

And then you’re around them week one for seven days. And then week two. And classes, and film, and skill, and you start to learn when things get hard, how do they deal with that? I think this summer we’ll learn a great deal. They will, and we will as well.

So if Ahmad Starks gets his waiver, you have two scholarships to give for the 2014 class, and if he doesn’t and is around for two years, you only have one more scholarship to give. Can you talk about what you’re looking for? I know you can’t talk about specific players or anything, but what are you looking for to fill out that next roster?

Well, I think obviously you look at it and you think frontcourt. A frontcourt player in that class makes a lot of sense. And then we’d like to continue to be able to add to our ballhandling. Passing and ballhandling and such. This past year was the first year that I’ve coached a team that had more turnovers than assists. I think we’ll be better this year with that, but I still think we need more.

You know, my wife fixed something for dinner the other night, and it didn’t taste right to her until she added some pepper. That’s my gut feel – we need to add some ballhanding and passing.

And maybe I’ll be wrong. We get to practice eight weeks this summer with the new rules, and maybe we’ll be “wow, some of these guys handle it better than what we thought – we’re OK there.” So that one, the second one, is a little bit more fluid. But for the first one, I think for sure that we need a frontcourt player.

Talk to me about the fanbase. What have you learned about Illini fans in your first year?

Well, they’re passionate, obviously. They love it, they follow it religiously…

Were you surprised at all by the passion? I know you grew up around Big Ten basketball, and you grew up, what, not even 100 miles away from Champaign, but were you surprised at all about the basketballness of Illinois’ fanbase? (Yes, I really did say “basketballness”)

Nah, not really. I think I knew that coming in. Like you said, as a kid, I grew up not to far from Champaign, and I remember watching the Flyin’ Illini and Coach Henson. And then I coached against the great ’05 team. I went to an Illinois game when I was a kid, and I coached in games at in, at that time, the Assembly Hall, so I had a pretty good feel for it.

But until you’re in it… you asked if I had a total grasp of it – not until you’re in it. You can say “hey, they’re fanatical, they love basketball, they love Illinois” and I’d say “yeah, I’m aware of that.” Clearly aware of that, growing up where I did. But you feel it more when you’re in it. And we’re grateful for that.

I think one of the things that is a killer is apathy. And that’s one thing that we don’t have at Illinois. We don’t have apathetic fans – we’re the opposite of that. We’ve got passionate fans who care a great deal about us, and you’d much rather have that, where there’s standards and there’s expectations and there’s passion, and I think we have all those things at Illinois.

I was very surprised by the fan reaction after the Miami loss. I think most fans, and I saw it everywhere, knew that that team gave everything they had. Maybe one call went the other way and whatever and they were upset about that, but I cannot recall the Illini fanbase – message boards, texts from friends, whatever – so positive after an NCAA Tournament loss. It was “this team gave everything they had, those seniors left everything on the court, and it didn’t go our way, but the future seems bright.”

Interesting. I’m glad they feel that way. You’d much rather they feel that way than not. Now, obviously, I can’t control that. I try not to get too high or too low – you do that in this business, and you’ll get gobbled up.

I’ll be honest with you – they should feel that way. They should be proud of those seniors. They should feel proud of that team and the way they bought in. They should feel proud of the way they started the season, and then hit a rough spot, and then dug their way out of it when, in the past, maybe that group of guys on the team didn’t have that respect from those fans. And they found a way to climb out of that deal. I think it spoke really highly of their character and deep down kind of who they were and are.

So I’m glad they feel that way. I’m know I’m proud of them. As I sit here today, shoot, you want to win every game. You prepare to win every game. Yeah you want to play the next weekend. And you know what, if you get beat in that round, that one stings and you wish you had another one. But all in all, if you’re fairly objective – and sometimes it’s hard to be until you’re two to three weeks out and you’re not as emotionally tied to it – you can say “OK let’s really look at this deal”. I can see how they would feel that way. As I sit here today, and as I said earlier in our conversation, that team squeezed a lot of blood out of the turnip.

I want to ask you about one play from last season. It was against Nebraska. You probably won’t remember this play, but Tracy looked at you after a whistle and asked to run a specific play…

Yes. I waved off Dustin (Ford’s) call and said “let him run it.”

I’m actually surprised you remembered that. So do you like that? Do you want a player saying “hey, I see something, and I want to run this instead”.

Absolutely. I love it. He sees it and thinks it’s going to work. And I think that’s the trust that I have with Tracy. I think it’s growing and I think it grew as the season went on. I’m looking forward to building off of that as we head into his junior year.

I try to give those guys a lot of responsibility. And if he saw something and he felt like it was something that we should run and he had a reason why then we rode with it. That’s what I want. I want him thinking the game. I want him taking ownership. You don’t want him to overthink. I think Mike (Dibilviss) said it here today, the Tarkanian quote: “when you think too much, you get slow feet”. And when you have slow feet, you’re not reacting. So you don’t want to overthink.

But I think that some coaches say “hey, I don’t want my players thinking at all so they can just react” – I don’t know about that. There’s a balance there. You don’t want to overthink, but you have to think a little bit. Especially if you’re a point guard. You have to understand time, score, is it a two-for-one, how much time is on the shot clock… you have to have at least some clue.

I think that Tracy, as the year went on, started to get more and more of a pulse for what we were looking for, and I thought he got better.

And Nnanna too.

Oh no question. Both of those guys got a lot better. That’s why they both got Most Improved Player during our player awards along with Rayvonte Rice. That was a tough one. We had our banquet and with all of the other awards it was just one winner, but we had so many guys improve. To be honest with you, we could have given it to even more guys, but we decided to go the underclassman route. But, shoot, Griffey got better from where he was when I first met him to what he was able to do as a senior. Paul had his best year ever. Richardson started to put the ball on the floor more and became a defensive force. I saw lots of guys get better.

And that’s what you want. You want them to continue to get better, even through the progression of the season as well as outside the season. I thought those two guys, from a statistical standpoint, from freshman year to sophomore year, as well as from an attitude standpoint, their bodies, how much better they got in season and how much more they understood the system, I thought Tracy and Nnanna really improved a lot. And now, hopefully they can make another jump.

OK, last question. When you look at this roster – and I know you kind of need to see what the guys coming in will bring – do you think your offense or defense will look any different next year?

That’s a great question. You know, we’ve talked about it, and what I’ve decided to do going into these eight weeks (during the summer), is to not really talk with those guys about what our cause is going to be. We had a cause in year one. We didn’t make that decision until August what that was going to be because I wanted to get to know them and I wanted to work with them and I wanted to talk with them, and we’re kind of a little bit in that same learning mode this summer with the nine newcomers.

I think it will be different next summer, because then it’s basically the opposite. A brand new team in year one that you’ve never coached, in year two nine newcomers, and then you might have some additions, but not like the first two years. So there will be a little more carry-over. And that’s what you want.

We came here, and we made the decision as a staff that we’re going to build it the right way. We’re not going to take any shortcuts. We didn’t come to Illinois and say “let’s sell out to everything so we can have this great season”. No, we came to Illinois to build a program.

So class balance and the type of kids we bring in and how we build our culture and all of those things are important. It will be interesting this year. It reminds me of our second year at Ohio. We’re going to rely on some freshmen. We are. They’re going to play. And that’s what they came for. They came for that opportunity. They saw opportunity.

Early on, are they going to be kind of learning on the fly and indoctrination by fire? Yes. They’re probably going to make some mistakes. They’re probably going to get popped in the mouth a few times. That’s OK. You know as well as I do that the best thing about freshmen is that they have the chance to become sophomores.

So then the next year, you have those guys plus some other guys returning plus some guys becoming eligible off transfer, and now you’re starting to gain some momentum and really get the thing where you want it. Sometimes, the baby steps at the beginning are very important as they set you up for success down the line.

Summer Conversations – John Groce (Part I)

“You interviewed me at this event last year, didn’t you?”

“Yes I did.”

“It was at that museum, and we did the interview before the event that time. We sat at a table in the back right when I arrived at the museum. It was kind of dark back there.”

That’s John Groce. He had just captivated an Illini Caravan audience by discussing his goals for the season (so much so that the emcee said something like “I’m ready to go suit up right now – put me in, coach”). He then signed autographs, engaging every person who came up. Then a TV interview. Then a print interview. And then he sat down with me and opened with everything he remembered about our interview a year ago.

A friend sent me a text after our interview and asked me how it went. My response: “I can see why Aaron Cosby cancelled his Missouri visit”. He’s so engaging, so confident in his responses, so committed to doing everything it takes to build this program back to where it was, that you can’t help but get excited. I can totally understand why Maverick Morgan and Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate and Michael Finke and Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul all committed while on their visits and cancelled plans to visit other schools. He’s the kind of guy you want to start working for immediately.

Part I of our chat:

We did sit down a year ago at this event, and you were maybe 60 days in. It was a whirlwind of activity at the time – you hadn’t even unpacked your office yet. Talk to me about the year since.

Well, the year has obviously been fast and furious. I probably didn’t have a chance to hit the reset button until I went on my first vacation about a week ago. You start reflecting a little bit more as you’re driving and traveling.

The biggest thing that we wanted to accomplish in year one was to lay down a foundation – a culture in which we say “this is how we do things”. This is how we practice, this is what we do in the offseason, this is our attitude, effort, and disposition in the weight room. This is what is expected of us academically. This is what is expected of us in terms of how we act and how we think. Basically, creating a winning mindset, if you will.

I thought the women’s coach (associate head coach Mike Dibilviss, who spoke at the event) said it best when he spoke earlier: winning is not a sometimes thing, it’s an all the time thing. So that was number one, and there’s no question in my mind that we were able to accomplish that.

Now, we have a lot of newcomers coming in, and they’ll have to embrace those things. And I’ll be counting on the five returners – Abrams and Nnanna and Ray and Joe and Mike LaTulip – to help us teach those things so that we can continue to build upward. But I do think we built our foundation with concrete and not quicksand, and I thought that was huge.

Then I’d say the next thing, and I mentioned this when I spoke, you know, you always want to win another one, or you want one back, or you say “maybe we got one we weren’t supposed to get” – they all start to balance each other out at the end of the year. But you ask yourself the question: did your team reach its maximum potential in that year? Given circumstances, personnel, all those different things. Certainly you’d like to have a game or two back, or you’d like to tweak this or tweak that, but all in all, I would say that we squeezed about all the blood out of the turnip.

Those are the things that I’d say are the things that stand out the most as takeaways from year one.

Are you going to carry the Toughness and Togetherness thing forward – the “TNT”?

No question. That’s never going to change. That’s our staple. I really believe that a lot of the time, it boils down to those two things. How tough are you mentally? Can you deal with success appropriately? Can you not become disfunctional with loss? How do you handle all of these things mentally?

And then how together are you? Are you – and I used this phrase earlier – singing Kumbaya and roasting marshmallows when things are good but then when things aren’t, everyone scatters? Are you in it for the guy to your left and to your right? Are you together and iron clad – do you get even stronger and tougher when you get popped in the mouth? To me, sometimes those things are more important than what out-of-bounds play you’re running.

Can you identify that when you’re recruiting? Do you look for it? Last year when we talked, you talked about DJ Cooper at Ohio – how tough he was. That you saw it when you recruited him.

I think the thing about DJ Cooper, and this is something that tells you a lot about a kid from a toughness standpoint, is their mindset. How do they play, perform, produce, their attitude and disposition, when they’re way behind? And how do they perform, what’s their disposition and their attitude and effort, when they’re way ahead? Do they let their foot off the gas? When they’re behind, do they cash it in?

It’s interesting. I like to watch that sometimes. I like to watch a competitive game. I can learn a lot about a player by watching their body language. When they’re up 15 with four to go, do they coast? When they’re down 15 with four to go, do they think it’s over?

Can you do that at, say, a July AAU event? You’ll watch for that?

No question. I watch everything. How they interact with their teammates. How they interact with their coaches. What’s their body language like when a call doesn’t go their way? What are they like when everything is going their way? Are they even keeled or do they lose their mind? Are they arrogant? I think those things will tell you a lot about a guy’s mindset.

So when you look at your first season… say it’s ten years from now. You’re looking back and thinking about the 2012/13 season. What do you think is the first thing you’ll think?

Without question the first thing I’ll think of is how proud I was of the team. We had to kind of rejuvenate them with some confidence and build them up to get off to the start that we did, then we got popped in the mouth the first five to nine games in Big Ten play, and then we were able to overcome that adversity. Because at that point, you’re kind of at the top of that deal and you could go either way. You could go back down to where you just came from, or you could cross over and fight through this. And they fought.

Can you identify a turning point? Do you have a point that you look back on – maybe a practice or a game where you think it turned?

I would say the team meeting that Richardson held pre-Nebraska. And then, obviously, finding a way to win the game at home against Indiana. I think it was those two things. We didn’t shoot the percentage that we shot early in the year – of course, part of that is you’re playing in the number one ranked league in America and playing against nationally ranked teams every night that can really defend and have great coaches, usually for a second time, and, with the Big Ten tournament, sometimes a third time – but I think the thing that teams that are consistently good do is defend and rebound. And we, without question, defended and rebounded the best that we had all year in the last ten games.

You want to be able to do those things consistently. It gives you a chance to win night in and night out. And that’s why I think we played our best at the end.

In the Indiana game, there’s the shot of you after Tyler makes the shot, and you slapped the floor and then kept your head down for a little bit. What was going through your mind?

I have a good friend on the women’s side – assistant coach Mike Divilbiss – who just really encouraged me that day to continue to stay positive even in the midst of all of that. To continue to grind it out and fight through it and have a positive attitude and disposition. That’s what I thought of immediately – how kind he was and how courageous he was to remind me of how important all of that is, especially when you’re coaching 18-22 year-olds.

The most important part of learning, I think, is emotion. I think some people miss that. There’s an old Tony Dungy quote: “you can be demanding without being demeaning”, and I think that’s spot on.

(Part II is here)

Summer Conversations: Tim Beckman (Part II)

The second half of my conversation with Tim Beckman, which marks the end of this summer series. And it isn’t even summer yet.

Who is the best recruiter you’ve ever been around?

I don’t know if there’s just one guy. Coach (Jim) Tressel did an outstanding job in certain areas. Coach (Urban) Meyer, he does a great job. And Coach (Mike) Gundy. If you look at a program, recruiting-wise, that has gone from where we are to the top-5, it’s Oklahoma State.

And it’s not always about just recruiting, it’s about the evaluation. If I had to say who I learned how to evaluate players from, it’s my father. He was a player personnel guy in the NFL.

Is he the one you learned to watch film from?

No question. That’s what he did. That’s what he was involved with when I was in my high school years – that’s when he got involved with player personnel in the NFL, and that’s when I got involved with that. So got to learn by going to combines. I got to go to the Senior Bowl. All of those things.

What about coaching? Tactical, schemes, who did you learn from?

I’ve been asked that question more than the recruiting question. And I don’t say it’s any one coach. I’ve learned something from each coach I’ve been under. Just think of the coaches I’ve been blessed with working under. Urban Meyer is a heck of a competitive guy. Jim Tressel is so organized. Mike Gundy is a player’s coach. So all of them have shaped my philosophies.

OK, an off the wall question. How important will Keith Gilmore’s ball-on-a-stick be to the future success of this football program? He carries that thing wherever he goes, and he’s put a lot of linemen in the first round with it, so how important is ball-on-a-stick in your program?

(laughing) Hey, as long as they come off the football, that’s what I care about.

On the snap and not the sound?

Yes. And it’s proven now. We’ve had outstanding defensive linemen here. Like I say all the time, every coach at our school is the GM for his position. So you need to identify and recruit players for your position. Well, I think Keith Gilmore has done a pretty good job recruiting and developing.

Alright, I’m going to read you a statistic. And I’m a bit obsessed with this statistic. Last 15 non-conference FBS opponents for Illinois: 123-57, for a .683 winning percentage. Northwestern’s last 15 non-conference FBS opponents are 47-133 for a .261 winning percentage. Illinois has had the most difficult non-conference schedule in the nation the over last five years. To me, it’s always seemed strange that we’re trying to build something here, but we’re playing an Ohio State-like non-conference schedule. What is your philosophy on scheduling? Because I’m pretty sure you don’t want to play a non-conference schedule where the opponents are 123-57 while you’re trying to build something. Or, maybe, you’re interested in testing your team before the conference schedule.

I’d be interested to see what are opponents were at Toledo the last three years. Because last year, our non-conference opponents were Ohio State, Syracuse, and Boise State.

I think you want to make sure that you have a competitive non-conference schedule. You know, sometimes, you plan these games so far in advance that you schedule them when they’re down here, but look where they are when you play them. So yes, you want it to be competitive, but you also want to be successful.

Last year was probably the hardest schedule that I’ve ever been through. We lost to Ohio State, and we had a chance to win at the end, we lost to Boise State where we played pretty good, and then we go play Syracuse where we really won the football game (ed. note: Toledo lost to Syracuse in overtime. But replays showed that Syracuse’s extra point with 2:07 remaining was wide. The Big East issued the worst kind of apology, admitting that the kick was no good and blaming the replay official for reviewing the wrong angle.) And then the next week we had to go to Temple, who had just beaten Maryland. That was on the road in the Eagles stadium. So we really had to keep our focus. A gut-wrenching loss to Ohio State, the Syracuse situation… and then we really got after Temple. (a 36-13 win)

So do you like this schedule? At Arizona State, plus Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech.

Western Michigan is a good football team. La. Tech is proven. It’s very competitive, so we’ll have to play our A game. We’ll really have to be prepared for those first four football games, and then be prepared for Penn State.

Last question. Wisconsin is known for their offensive lines. Alvarez built it, Bielema has continued it – when you think of Wisconsin football, you think of their offensive lines. At Ohio State, it was Tresselball – we’re going to play conservative, you’re not going to move on our defense, and we’re going to wear you down. Do you have something that you want to build this program around?

I want it to be our competitive nature. Everyone knowing that we’ll compete for four quarters. We’re going to compete in everything we do all year, and we’re going to compete in four quarters on the football field.

You know, I saw on Twitter that Evan Wilson was bragging about beating his mom in Connect Four, so…

(laughing) Alright! Competitive.

I think it’s a second nature that you can build. We can compete against ourselves, because we do that academically; we compete against our teammates in practice, and that makes us better, that makes practices better, and that makes me a better coach; and then we’ll compete on Saturdays – that’s what this game is all about. That’s why we do it.

Summer Conversations: Tim Beckman (Part I)

The first thing I said to Tim Beckman was that I was the world’s biggest Illini football fan. I couldn’t help myself. That’s how I self-identify. I shook his hand, I told him I might ask some off the wall questions because I’m a blogger, and then I gushed about Illini Football being my life’s great obsession and how I check almost daily every June for the freshman numbers to be released. I think I might have even mentioned something about watching the Wrigley game 43 times. Not sure. I was in gush mode.

I can’t say for sure, and this wasn’t my intention, but I believe this set the tone for some great answers. He seemed to understand where I was coming from, and our conversation became, well, conversational at times. We talked Memorial Stadium wind and Illini traditions and the future of the football team I so dearly love. Here’s Part I of our chat:

Let’s start by talking about traditions. You said it in your introductory press conference, that tradition is very important. Why is it so important to you?

I think it’s the backbone of college football. I’ve been around football my entire life – 47 years I’ve been around it – and I’ve been involved in big-time football games. The Ohio State-Michigan games. Auburn-Alabama. Oklahoma State-Oklahoma. And my father was involved with the Steelers-Browns games in the NFL. So to me, tradition in football is the most important thing. It’s important that the players understand tradition – that they understand who it is they’re playing for.

That’s what I’m trying to portray to this team. It’s not about the guys that are playing now, it’s about the guys who have played in the past, the ones that built the program and gave you the opportunity to put on this uniform now.

And the thing Illinois has, as you know, is Red Grange and Dick Butkus. Two of the top 10 college football players in history played at Illinois. Not Michigan, not Ohio State – Illinois.

Yes. And the other thing is, Big Ten Championships and National Championships. No, we don’t have what Michigan and Ohio State have, but on the next level, in the Big Ten, we’re right there when you look at national championships. So tradition shows us that it can be done here.

So the traditions you learned when you were at Oklahoma State or Ohio State – are those things you’re going to try to implement here, or are you more interested in the traditions of Illinois Football?

I think what we’re going to try to do is implement some of the things we did at Toledo that brought the tradition of Toledo football back. Such as former players being coaches of the spring game. At Illinois, we have 26 players in the NFL right now. So I want to bring some of those players back this fall when they have a bye week in the NFL. Make them the main speakers on Friday nights before games.

We’ve talked about building traditions around the rivalry game with Northwestern. At Toledo, we implemented something with the Bowling Green rivalry where the players would get dog tags for every win over The Team Down South. We want to add some things that will be special that can be included in the traditions of our program.

This might be a bit of an off-the-wall question, and I’m not sure how aware of this you are, but tell me your thoughts on the wind in Memorial Stadium. In October and November, you’re probably going to have that 40 MPH wind game. For the fans, the wind has always been a bit of a frustration point, as we’ve never really used it to our advantage. Talk to me about playing football in the wind.

Let me ask you a question: have you ever been to Northwest Ohio?

Yes I have. Winds off the lake?

Yes. It’s terrible. Both at Toledo and Bowling Green. We don’t call it Bowling Green, it’s Blowing Green.

As an assistant coach, I’ve been involved in coaching punt returners how to set up to catch a punt in the wind. I did it at Bowling Green and Ohio State and even Oklahoma State – I was in charge of those things. There’s no question, you have to understand it might be an issue each and every game.

We had a practice this spring where half of the practice was on individual, and then the last half of the practice was just kicking. And the wind played a huge factor in the kicking game we played. Some blew past them, some stood straight up in the wind.

So you’re in kind of an interesting situation taking over this program. When Ron Turner took over, we were coming off a 2-9 season. When Ron Zook took over, we were coming off four wins in two seasons. Both of those tasks were complete rebuilding jobs. You’re taking over a program that has won 14 games the last two years. So do you see this as a rebuilding job, or…

That’s what was intriguing to me when I had the opportunity to interview for this job. At Toledo, I took over a program that was 3-9. So I thought about that.

I think the thing that needs to be built here is consistency. The last two years, yes, Coach Zook did a great job and they won some football games.

And he put some people in the draft.

No question. Since 2008 we’ve had five first-round draft picks. That’s more than any other Big Ten school. So I think it’s not really a rebuilding job, but we’re not where we need to be. We’ve been, I guess, acceptable, if I can use that word. But in college football, “acceptable” isn’t always a word you want to hear. I just feel we need to build to a consistent level. And it’s something that has to be built. We don’t have any depth right now, and that’s a major concern.

Summer Conversations: Mike Thomas

I’m going through these conversations in the order in which they took place 11 days ago (11 days and I’ve only posted the Groce interview? Lazy bloggers are lazy.) So after I sat down with the ridiculously impressive John Groce before the St. Louis Illini Caravan event, I sat and chatted with his boss.

Mike Thomas, as you know, has had a whirlwind nine months. He’s had to transition from one University President to the next, reorganize his staff, bring in his deputy (think first officer, not wild west), settle assistant coaching contract issues, go to BCS meetings, and oh yeah, fire the three highest profile coaches.

I guess he didn’t have to. His predecessor slow-played his coaching changes, opting for an it-might-turn-around-next-season-and-change-can-sometimes-be-bad approach. Thomas could have gone in that direction, but he’s done just the opposite. Every desk in every major office has been cleaned out in the last 6 months, save for one assistant coach and his ball-on-a-stick. Meet the new boss, not at all like the old boss.

I was very impressed with Coach Groce. He’s an intense, focused individual. Is that what you saw in him when you were looking for a basketball coach? He seems to have a drive that you don’t see in many coaches.

Yes. He has a drive. He’s intense. He’s a grinder. He has a lot of energy. He’s very passionate. He has a tremendous work ethic. I saw a lot of those things in him. The things I saw in him are the same as a lot of the people he has past experience working with in the basketball world. People that are experts and know a lot about the game. They’d say the same about him as well.

So how has the reception been at the Caravan events?

It’s been terrific. This is our 9th city in 12 days, and the first 8 cities have all been record crowds. The fans have been very receptive, and the response has been very positive. It’s really been terrific.

Talk to me about branding this University. You’ve said that word many times – “branding”. You said it in your introductory press conference, and you’ve said it in other press conferences. If you would, talk a little bit about branding Illinois nationally.

First of all, I think we need to do a better job even on our own campus. And our own state. We’ve talked about Chicago and we’ve talked about St. Louis – we need to have a message that’s consistent. This is who we are, this is what we’re about. We are the state of Illinois’ school, and we have to have a consistent message that’s not just there for a short time period, but is there for the long haul.

You go to Detroit, and Michigan stuff is everywhere. That’s not the case for us in Chicago – it never has been, and Chicago is a different animal than Detroit – but do you think you can extend our reach into Chicago? Is that a goal to be like what other Big Ten programs do in their larger metropolitan areas?

I think Chicago is going to be difficult in the sense that almost every Big Ten school has a presence there. Even Nebraska. But we obviously have the largest alumni base of any of the other Big Ten schools in Chicago.

Our goal in Chicago is this: we already have people engaged in what were doing, we have people in Chicago that are probably on the edge – people who went to the University of Illinois but are now on the edge – and you have those alumni in Chicago who are disengaged. Our goal, really, is to engage those people who already have a familiarity or a relationship with our University. It may not be with athletics, but a relationship with our University. I don’t think we’re going to “flip” those people that are graduates or have relationships with other universities.

So you have your own that you need to work on, and then there’s probably a discretionary – a gray area – of those that aren’t attached to any university. I think any of those that you could pick up would be icing on the cake.

You said the word “icing” there, and I’m going to use that to segue to another question I had.

Ice Hockey?

Yes.

(laughs) I don’t get that question a lot, but I’ve had that question a few times in my 9 months here.

One of my roommates at Illinois played on the club hockey team, so it was a big part of my experience when I was a student. Friday and Saturday night games with fairly large crowds – it was a pretty big thing, even just at the club level. So I’ve always been curious if – obviously you’d need a different arena, so you’d need a facility – but is there anything in any long range plan?

We really haven’t put much time or thought into that. I know that they have a great club program here, and I know they’re well supported, but for us right now, we’re just trying to do what we can do with the 19 sports that we have, and support all of them at the level that they need to be supported to compete at the highest level and have a great student experience for our student athletes.

So at this point, no, not really. But I am a fan. I’m from Denver, I’m an Avalanche fan, and I worked at the University of Denver for seven years, so I know something about the sport of college ice hockey. But right now, that’s not something we’re pursuing.

Let’s talk a little about football scheduling. In the past, we’ve played – well, you were at Cincinnati when we played the 12-0 Bearcats, and I think our non-conference opponents that were 12-0, 9-3, and 8-4 – so are you involved in football scheduling, or do you let Coach Beckman get involved with that, or how do you view football scheduling?

Really, myself and my deputy AD Jason Lener will do the football scheduling. But we’ll consult with Coach Beckman, we won’t schedule anything or get too far down the path unless he’s engaged in that conversation.

I know that Illinois, in the last four years, has had the most difficult non-conference schedule in terms of opponents’ records. Which for a struggling program trying to get on its feet probably isn’t the best. Do you have a philosophy toward scheduling – one MAC game, one BCS opponent, something like that – or are you right now just trying to fill in the next few years with some games already on the schedule?

I think that there has to be some balance there. I think it also is, as you said, where your program is at the time. When you’re trying to build a foundation do you want to bite off more that you can chew? No. So I think when you are an established program that’s a top-10 or a top-20 program, you might be able to schedule a little bit differently.

You have to find the sweet spot. You want to find a schedule that provides some balance but also is attractive to your fans, especially for those games that are going to be played in Memorial Stadium.

So in your first year, you have a volleyball team that’s in the national championship game, you had a gymnastics team win a national championship, you had a golfer win a national championship – this might be the highest finish in the Directors Cup in a while, so you have to feel pretty good about your first year.

Well, we’re 19th right now. We have to have a strong spring finish to finish in the top-20. Our highest finish ever is 20th, and we were 23rd last year. So if we have a strong spring, that may happen. Unfortunately, Thomas Pieters winning an individual national championship in golf doesn’t count in the team standings. It’s all based on your team points.

Our women’s track program just a week ago was 18th in the country. We have Andrew Riley in men’s track and field, and also Ashley Spencer with the women’s program, a terrific student athlete who is only a freshman with three more years of eligibility. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t win a national championship before she’s finished at Illinois.

(Ed. note: Eight days after Mike Thomas said that, Ashley Spencer won the 400m at the NCAA Track and Field Championships.)

So you’ve been in Champaign for nine months now. I assume you’re settled in – I know it was just you and your daughter for while when you first moved. Are you enjoying the community? The restaurants?

It’s been terrific. Coach Beckman and I, on the way down here today, critiqued every restaurant in Champaign. Fast food, whatever, it didn’t matter. We covered all the bases. But Champaign has been great. It’s all been good.

I was with my daughter for a month or so – I think she was thankful that her mom showed up in mid-September. But it’s been good. It’s a great place to be, and we have great people that support our programs.

Summer Conversations: John Groce (Part II)

Part II of my conversation with the ridiculously impressive John Groce. Over the weekend I’ll transcribe the Mike Thomas conversation and I’ll post that on Monday. Wednesday and Friday will be my talk with Tim Beckman. And then on Saturday I’ll talk to my uncle Paul and get his opinions on kids these days.

The team this year seemed to be really mentally strained come February. How as a coach to you face that? How do you prepare your team to deal with that?

That’s a great question. I told those guys that I’m one of those people that believes in controlling the controlables. You can’t control the past, good or bad. That’s gone. People keep asking me about last year, and I haven’t watched enough of last year to be able to critique last year. I saw a couple games on TV, and not even the whole game. So for me to say yay or nay – that’s totally unfair.

But I know right now we’re going in a direction where we establish and develop a culture where we finish everything. Whether that’s academics, whether that’s something off the court, whether that’s finishing a game, finishing a possession with a rebound, executing on a given offensive possession, finishing the half, finishing a four minute war… finish finish finish. I just think it’s a mindset. Being a finisher is a mindset.

Right now, are we where we need to be in that area? No. But in the spring, that’s why we came up with our motto: T-n-T. Toughness and togetherness. It’s what we need more than anything else. Part of that is what I think you’re talking about, where we’ve got to be able, when we get popped in the mouth, to stay right here and handle adversity and fight. I call it having fight syndrome instead of flight syndrome.

I read something you said about DJ Cooper at Ohio, where you said that you don’t necessarily get upset that he’s taken a bad shot here or there because you want his mindset…

…to be in attack mode. Yes. It’s very important, especially with your better players. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that if you have a really gifted offensive player, the worst thing you can do to him is handcuff him and get him overthinking things – where he’s in a mode where he’s reactionary instead of in attack mode.

A lot of that depends on a kid’s talent level. DJ (Cooper) was really talented offensively. I’ve always said about him – 80-90% of the time he made you look like a million dollars, 10-20% of the time he made you look like you do not know how to coach. And to get that 80-90% out of him, you had to let him go and work through some things. I think he kept getting better as he got older. That’s always the philosophy I’ve had with really talented offensive players.

Let’s talk non-conference schedule. Will you be involved in that? I know in the former coaching regime one of the assistants handled most of that.

I’ll be heavily involved. Right now our biggest issue is that we have to get more home games. We are last in the Big Ten in the last five years in non-conference home games.

So would you rather to play a non-conference home game instead of one of these neutral-neutral arrangements?

I do like the neutral site games we have. The one in St. Louis, obviously, is a spectacular event. I love it. We want to keep that going as long as we can. I think it’s one of the greatest non-conference rivalry games in college basketball. I love the game in the United Center. It makes sense for us to take our product and brand to Chicago. So those two games are good.

But past that, I don’t know how many neutral site games we need. The biggest thing is, we have 18 BCS-level, high major conference games, and we want to play our fair share of tough non-conference games to get us prepared for that, but we have to play some home games. We’re playing 7 out of 14 at home this year, and 5 out of 13 next year. That’s unheard of at our level.

At Ohio we were playing 10+ at home out of 15 games. To give you another example, Ohio State has played 49 home games in the last five years, we’ve played 33. That’s an average of 3-4 more home game per year for them. So that’s the biggest focus for us with our schedule.

You said the word “brand” there. How do you see yourself branding Illinois basketball nationally?

The biggest thing we’re going to be about as we brand this thing is that we want to be a program where when people think about our program, they think about the amount of growth and development our kids get year after year after year after year. Those kids get better. If you go to Illinois, and you play for that staff, and you play in that environment and that climate, look at how much better those kids get.

And I’m not just talking about the basketball piece. I’m talking about the person piece, I’m talking about the student piece, I’m talking about maturity and growth – they’re growing up and getting better and developing.

I feel probably as much of a burden of responsibility for that than I do anything. Even more than wins and losses and all those things. Because if I’m a parent, and I send my son to college, what I want for him is to grow. It’s the whole reason he’s going. If he’s the same person, student, and player year after year after year, and when he finishes he’s the same, then why did he go to college? So that, to me, is the centerpiece of what we want to be going for.

OK, last question. I’m going to read you some stats that I’ve posted on my blog a few times. My friend Erik put these together. As the program has kind of faded the last few years, missing the tournament three of the last five, there’s been this debate as to our place in the college basketball world. So here’s the stats that Eric put together, and I want to get your reaction.

Illinois is 13th all time in the NCAA in wins.
11th all time in tournament appearances.
18th in tournament wins.
14th in Final Four appearances.
9th in AP Poll appearances.
More Big Ten Tournament wins than any other team.

What’s your reaction to all of that?

You know, I was given that information when I was interviewing. It gets you excited. I think the one thing that we can’t do, and this is why I love the direction that Mike Thomas is taking with all of this, is that we can’t assume that we’ll continue to do those things on a consistent basis just because we’re Illinois.

I think one thing about the programs that I’ve been around – and I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great coaches and great players and great visionary leaders – is they are consumed every day with getting better. You can’t just say “it’s going to happen again because that’s what happens at Illinois”, and then not address facilities. And not address non-conference scheduling. We’re always looking for ways to improve in all of those areas.

To me, that’s the key to getting back to having the opportunity to do those type of things. It can’t just be “well, why aren’t we doing it? Illinois has always done it.” It doesn’t work that way. You see these schools that these programs that are going like this (upward motion with hands), and I just left one at Ohio, and you see that it takes a great deal of investment from everybody. It takes everyone from tickets to marketing to administration to the staff to the players you bring in. It a village of people all going straight up, with a mindset of “hey, we’re going to get better. We want to improve.”

To me, that’s what makes what we’re doing right now at Illinois exciting. Mike Thomas is very visionary, and he’s auditing every single program at the University of Illinois and saying “what do we need to do and where do we need to go to be nationally competitive and competitive in the Big Ten conference. Because if you’re competitive in the Big Ten, you and I both know that probably means you’re in the top-25, and that means you’re in Tournament.

So all of those things start to become options when you get in that upper crust. And I think that’s what we’re all looking for and I know that’s what he’s looking to attain with all of our programs. To do that, it takes visionary leadership and it takes a mindset that what we’re doing today isn’t good enough, how can we be better? What are we doing today to get better?

Summer Conversations: John Groce (Part I)

I talked to John Groce for 20 minutes on Friday. And then I chatted with Mike Thomas for 10 minutes. Then I sat down with Tim Beckman for 20 minutes. And then I spent the next 4 hours thinking about my conversation with John Groce.

He’s ridiculously impressive.

This is not to disparage Mike Thomas or Tim Beckman. Both had great things to say, as you’ll see later in this series. But John Groce was simply ridiculously impressive. So much so that I began to self-loathe during the interview itself, hating myself for not being 100% on board the moment he was mentioned as a candidate.

Talk to him for three minutes and you can see why Groce was such a hit as a recruiter at Ohio State. He looks you in the eye, he speaks with conviction, and he’s delightfully candid. Ever talk to one of those people that leaves you feeling inadequate because they appear to have put hundreds of hours of thought behind their opinions? That’s John Groce. Ridiculously impressive. Here’s Part I of our chat:

You just hit the 2 month mark in Champaign. How have your first 60 days been?

It’s been a whirlwind. There’s days where you feel like you’re drinking water out of a fire hose, to be honest. But it’s been good. I get a chance to build something special, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the administration and the people in the community who will be part of that. These caravans have been awesome because you’re meeting all kinds of different people in Illini Nation around the state.

We’ve had a lot of transition in these 60 days, but it’s been good. Sometimes, people are resistant to change, but I believe change can lead to growth, and we’ve seen the changes of the last 60 days as a great opportunity to move our program forward.

Talk to me about your seniors. Let’s start with Tyler Griffey. As a fan, he’s probably the one player I’m most excited to see take a big step forward in his final season.

First of all, he had a fantastic spring. He shot the ball really well, and I was really impressed with his skill level. He finished second in our one-on-one team tournament. Brandon Paul ended up winning it, but Tyler was up in the final game and had a chance to win it. His ball skills really stood out to me – his skill level, his basketball IQ.

I think the three things we want to help Tyler with are strength, conditioning, and defense. I think we can get him a lot stronger between now and next season, and we need to get his cardiovascular conditioning to a ridiculous level. And then defensively – people have said to me “hey, he got pulled a lot”. I’ve watched a little bit of film, and sometimes that can be mistaken. Sometimes people might think that was for a missed shot. I’m not one of those guys that gets too worked up over missed shot; if it’s a good shot and the guy misses, hey, we’re not going to make them all.

But I think the one thing we have to do not only with Tyler but with everyone is to hold them accountable on the defensive end. Some of the three-point defense numbers we had, the defensive efficiency numbers we had, those are obviously going to have to get a lot lower or we’re not going to be very successful. So Tyler, as a senior and a guy who has a great basketball IQ, needs to really help us and take pride in that and be accountable just like everyone else on the defensive end of the floor.

I think in terms of our style of play, Tyler is going to benefit big-time in terms of how we play. He’s going to stretch the floor for us – we’ve always played a stretch 4 – and he’s going to be able to get threes off penetration. He’s going to have a lot of freedom to shoot the ball. So the offensive end is going to take care of itself, and I think his skill set will fit well there. The question is, not only for him but for the rest of his teammates, is how well are they going to defend? Because defense plus taking care of the ball equals playing time if you play for me. So he has to do those things at a high level, especially on the defensive end.

How about DJ? What do you see for him?

Similar, although he’s a guard and Tyler is a forward. DJ also had a great spring. Most of the stuff we did was offensive skill stuff, and when you put him in a situation where he’s catching and shooting and using his midrange game, he looks big time.

We tried to work on his handle this spring. We want to tighten up his handle and make him a better ball handler. I know he’s been working on that on his own a lot. That’s one area he needs to improve in.

But again, for our team, for each individual, it’s going to start on the defensive end. He and his teammates have to start showing an extraordinary commitment to being hard to score against. We have to bring those numbers down. I’m hoping DJ can be a guy we can count on to guard the basketball on the perimeter and keep the ball in front.

And Brandon – talk about Brandon for a little bit.

The biggest thing with Brandon is the mental side. I think Brandon is really talented. I think he’s a great athlete – he has length, he has size for his position, he has the ability to defend and obviously be a terrific offensive player. But for him it’s his mindset.

Right now, as an older player, the thing I’m trying to get him to understand is that the way to success for our team is for him and Tyler and DJ and Sam McLaurin as well, that it’s leading and giving and helping the others. I know Brandon is one of those guys who is always going to take care of his business – he’s a hard worker, a great student, a great kid – and now what I want him to do as an older guy is reach those other guys and bring them along with him. Care about them reaching a high level. That’s the number one thing I’ll be challenging Brandon on.

Let’s talk about fandom, and I promise not to dig deep into the growing-up-in-Indiana stuff. I write a fan site – everything is slanted towards the fan experience. What about your fan experience? Are you a sports fan? Are there professional teams that you follow when you’re not coaching?

I grew up watching a lot of Big Ten basketball, mostly Indiana as you mentioned, and I watched some Notre Dame football. That’s all from my grandmother, who lived with us since I was 12. My family always rooted for the Cincinnati Reds, so I’ve been a Reds fan for a long time, and we always rooted at a very high level for the Chicago Bears, so I’ve been a Bears fan since I was young.

In terms of the NBA, I root for the guys I’ve coached. Someone asked me the question yesterday “who do you want to win the NBA Finals”, and I said the Thunder because I coached Daequan Cook. I was rooting for Evan Turner in the other series, David West in another series, so I pay attention to different teams because it gives me a chance to follow their careers and root for them.

Do you follow what fans are saying about your teams on the internet? Blogs and message boards and such?

No. Never. I don’t read anything in the media in-season. I have a great deal of respect for the media because they have a job to do, so I always try to make myself accessible because we have a great product at Illinois and we want to promote that, but at the same time, I have a feel for what’s going on with my team because I’m there every day, so I don’t need to read about what’s going on.

Outside of the season we obviously pay attention to the recruiting stuff quite a bit. Social media and blogs and stuff like that, we have a guy on our staff that is assigned to that. Sometimes you can get helpful information about recruiting, so we’d be foolish not to use it as a tool.

Speaking of recruiting, what’s your philosphy on early offers and getting in early with kids?

We want to do that for sure – we want to get in early with kids. We want to evaluate them as early as possible. It’s been a little tough – we’ve been here 60 days and we inherited roughly six scholarships for ’12 and ’13. I would like to evaluate some ’14′s and ’15′s. My background is to get way out in front on those guys, and I think we will do that. But it’s been tough in these 60 days.

We put recruits through a rigorous test as a staff in terms of three areas: we want to have a great pulse for what they’re like citizenship-wise, we want to have a great pulse for where they are academically, and we want to have a great pulse for what they are as a basketball player. How talented are they? Do they fit our style of play? What position or positions do they play? How versatile are they? Are they a winner – do they come from a winning program? How well have they been coached?

We have a litany of things that we go through. Obviously not everyone is a home run in all areas that we evaluate, but we want to know what we’re getting, so we evaluate all of those things first. We do evaluate early, and often, but we don’t offer a ton of kids. We don’t take a shotgun recruiting approach where we’re offering 50 kids because we see their name on some list. In a perfect world, we want to get them to campus and get to know them first, or have someone who knows them really well vouch for them. We want to learn as much as we can about them, and then when we feel comfortable that they can be an Illini guy, then we’ll place an offer on the table.