I haven't told this story before because I didn't feel it was appropriate. It's an eavesdropping story, and nobody likes an eavesdropper. So I told myself I would sit on the story until the day John Groce was no longer head coach. Well, that's today, so here's the story.
(OK, that intro is a little over the top. It's not some salacious story or anything. I'll just tell it.)
After a game in 2015, I was wrapping up my postgame article (which I usually write from press row) when I noticed that John Groce was back inside the arena having a conversation with an AAU coach who had attended the game. (No, I'm not going to name the AAU coach.) I finished my article, packed up my computer bag, and headed for the exit. At that time, with the old Assembly Hall floor design, the stairway to leave the floor was directly next to where they were chatting.
I would always get nervous at times like this. I have a credential around my neck, so I want to follow all the rules, but the fan in me is dying to know if they're talking about some recruit that might visit. But I didn't want to be that guy, so I didn't hang around trying to listen - I simply headed for the stairs and left the Hall (er, State Farm Center).
I did hear part of their conversation. It was impossible not to when walking directly past them. Groce was telling the coach a story. Again, I felt bad for hearing ("oh God am I eavesdropping right now?"), but I had to take the stairs to leave.
The story Groce was loudly telling was a parable. Something about a frog needing to jump from a sinking log or something. The kind of story some motivational speaker would tell ("I want you to be that frog today, people!"). And it struck me at the time that... perhaps this is where the disconnect was occurring.
The John Groce era will be known for one thing: finishing second on recruits. We were right on the edge of landing Demetrius Jackson... and he picked Notre Dame (but we got the silver medal!). We made the final two for Jalen Brunson... and he picked Villanova. We made the final two for Jawun Evans... and he picked Oklahoma State. We had Quentin Snider... and then finished second to Louisville. There were two hats that Cliff grabbed... and ours finished second. Hi ho silver.
It always surprised me that Groce could not close the deal on these recruits. I don't believe he'd be losing his job today had he landed Jalen Brunson and Carlton Bragg. He consistently found himself listed on these kids' shortlists and all he had to do was close the deal. And we kept getting the silver medal.
Yes, he failed at the coaching side as well. I don't really know my X from my O, but I know enough to say that he couldn't ever put it all together. This season was a perfect example of that. Five seniors, an all-conference go-to player, a very open Big Ten... and 18 wins and another missed Tournament. I totally get that John Groce's ability to run successful schemes cost him his job.
But to me, the biggest thing that cost him his job was not landing the guys he silver-medaled on. Add Jawun Evans to this team and I think we're dancing. As DJax lead Notre Dame to the Elite Eight a few years ago, I couldn't help but think of what this team would have looked like with him at point guard for three seasons. Heck, just look at SMU going to the tournament led by Ben Moore, Shake Milton, and Sterling Brown. Groce targeted the right players. He just couldn't ever close on the most important ones.
I like John Groce, and it makes me sad he never found that true recruiting breakthrough. It also makes me sad that he couldn't take the players he did land and put together a competitive team. 37-53 in the Big Ten is an alarming number that will look worse and worse as the years progress. History will not be kind. I hope he lands another job, but his dream of being a big-time college basketball coach leading teams deep into NCAA Tournaments probably died today.
And when I look at those five years, I keep thinking about to that frog story. I drove home that night wondering if Groce had missed his calling as a corporate trainer. Take all of that high-energy coffee nervousness and motivate an insurance conference. So often I would get sucked in at postgame press conferences as he defended his guys and sold you on his vision. He totally understands how to use a microphone. I'm just not sure he's the best with a whistle.
That's my point. I believed in Groce because of the words, but you need a lot more than words. You have to actually land the recruits. You have to actually design the inbounds play. You have to make the right call on zone vs. man. You have to learn about the AAU coach and build a long-standing relationship... and maybe that includes turning off the Tony Robbins for a bit. We've seen how Bill Self's southern charm worked in those environments, and now we've seen how John Groce's over-intensity failed to reach the mark.
Which means we now we enter another coaching search. I want to talk about it, but maybe that's for another day. Today I find myself a bit sad. Sad that Groce could never get there, because I always wanted him to get there.
And also crazy excited that we might finally get back to being us.