Silver Medal

Mar 11, 2017

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.


HiggsBoson on March 11 @ 12:52 PM CST

I think you just described Groce as a Bullshit Artist who just wasn't good enough at it to sell the big clients.

In any case, he wasn't good enough at any aspect of coaching to have succeeded at a high level no matter who he recruited. I am firmly convinced that he could have taken the Jordan-Pippin Bulls in their prime and coached them to a lower division B1G finish. As it stands, he finishes as the all time worst Illini basketball coach.

I wonder if there's any way we can take the damage done to Illini sports by his boy Mike Thomas out of Hogan's hide (or bank account).

HiggsBoson on March 11 @ 12:54 PM CST

The edit function still isn't working.

orangejulius on March 11 @ 01:43 PM CST

Robert, I agree with most of your post. The game is about the Joes, 98%. It's the reason we're excited about football. It's the reason the Cubs won the World Series. Talent wins, and ultimately that is where Groce failed. I don't care if you start all seniors. If they can't dribble, jump, and shoot, you're not gonna win enough ballgames. If you are watching any of the games this week, the difference in talent is very obvious.

it wasn't just finishing second for the blue chippers. It was a failure to recruit the right players in the first place that did Groce in. You've got to get who you can get. By the time he got this corrected, it was too late.

I applaud Coach Groce for the way he went out, which was with class and dignity.

Joe Edge on March 11 @ 02:01 PM CST

This: 'it wasn't just finishing second for the blue chippers. It was a failure to recruit the right players in the first place that did Groce in' ...

When you can't land a top 100 high school PG or C in 4 years at Illinois, you're going to have trouble, and that's what killed this roster, and JG's career here....

orangejulius on March 11 @ 02:13 PM CST

Yep, and I don't care if you bring John Wooden back from the dead. if he can't keep our recruiting class, or replace with similar talent, we're gonna be in real trouble next season.

Groundhogday on March 11 @ 02:36 PM CST

Yes, unfortunately, Groce left a decimated roster. So even with that recruiting class next year was going to be a struggle.

No choice, pull the plug and hire someone who is capable of running a successful B1G program. If we have to take a hit next year, so be it. But if Whitman makes a good hire, they will most likely be able to keep signees in the fold.

Bear8287 on March 11 @ 10:41 PM CST

You're a funny guy OJ.

The game is about the Joes, 98%. ... It's the reason the Cubs won the World Series.

If you're talking about Joe Maddon then I agree. :-)

Where do you get this goofy notion that coaching plays such a small (2%?) role in the success of a team?

Check this out, the Illini played Michigan 3 times this season:

  • January 11th W 85-69
  • January 21st L 57-66
  • March 9th L 55-75

So, Illinois had the better "Joes" on January 11th, but now the Michigan "Joes" are better? (Oh, by the way, the Michigan "Joes" are playing today in the BTT championship game.)

Did PSU have the better "Joes" this season having the Illini down by 21 in Happy Valley and 19 at SFC and winning both of those games against the Illini? How about Rutgers? Better "Joes"? Using your math the odds of the Illini losing all 3 of those games with the better "Joes" should've been about 1 in 125,000.

Like Robert said, 23 wins like Minnesota has this year in a soft B1G should've absolutely been in the cards for the Illini. Gross had top 5 team talent in the B1G this year and finished 9th. This team should've been in the NCAA tourney this year, last year's team should've made the NIT and the year before that the Illini had a meltdown at Purdue after being up by 20 and blew another chance at an NCAA bid.

If Groce had the top talent in the B1G, he could probably finish 4th in the conference, but if that's what he needs to just eek into the bottom of the top-tier, that's unacceptable.

Remember Ron Zook? Heck of a recruiter. He was a "Joes" kind of guy too. Got fired at Florida for being mediocre (and they sure had talent) and then got fired from Illinois after having only one good season.

Coaching is 2% eh? Please explain Bo Ryan's run at Wisconsin for me then because your math doesn't add up...

Oh and the Illini's incoming recruiting class in football is ~40-ish. I think most fans are more optimistic because of the coaches that are running the program now. If they can "coach up" the new recruits and win some games it should make it easier to recruit higher ranked players in the future and that's how you build a program.

iluvrt on March 12 @ 12:51 PM CDT

Nut huggers gonna hug

McAdoo on March 11 @ 03:33 PM CST

"He totally understands how to use a microphone."

If I had to guess, John Groce will jump right back into the pond and take a head coaching job at a mid-major in the next couple weeks. However, I really think he should strongly consider going into broadcasting.

I've been in the broadcasting business for two decades, and I can tell you he would be a great fit for ESPN or FS1 and their college basketball broadcasts. He has that magnetic energy that really pops on TV. Frankly, the only thing he needs is just a little work with a voice coach to somewhat deepen his voice and get a little nasality out of it.

I'm not saying that he could be analyzing the national championship game in two years, but I think Groce would be a really good analyst for a Butler-Providence game on a Saturday afternoon or an Arizona-Washington game on a Thursday night.

Now that I've said that, I'll move on to the other business at hand... John Groce was a quality representative for the University of Illinois, however it was time for his departure. Whitman did a very good job during his press conference earlier today. I really think he wanted to keep Groce and was looking for any excuse to do so... But Groce failed to provide that excuse.

Reading between the lines, I think Whitman has already made the decision on the next head coach. Whitman isn't using a search firm and it is now public knowledge through the Monty Williams leak to Wojnarowski that money is no issue. I think Whitman has talked with the agent for (Insert Coach Name Here) and already negotiated the basic parameters of the deal. If that's correct, then we can reasonably assume the next Illini coach is currently coaching in the NCAA Tournament.

This, at least in my opinion, leaves us with five possibilities...

  1. Gregg Marshall
  2. Kevin Keatts
  3. Tim Jankovich
  4. Frank Martin
  5. Archie Miller

By the way, in my opinion I don't think Cuonzo Martin will be considered as he seems to never like his administrators and has been all too happy to take "the next job".

I personally think Marshall checks all the boxes and would be a great hire. Keatts would be more of a risk/reward hire - His upside is wonderful, but you don't know where his floor would be. Jankovich has the state of Illinois connections and has done well this year at SMU. Frank Martin might be unrealistic, however you have to wonder if he's happy coaching at a place (South Carolina) where basketball is closer to #3 (Baseball) than #1 (Football). Then, finally, there's Archie Miller. I think, in a normal situation, he would at least be interested. However, would he REALLY stab his old coaching buddy Groce in the back by taking the Illinois job after Groce was just fired? I don't see it, but stranger things have happened.

Groundhogday on March 11 @ 03:57 PM CST

Thing is, we don't have enough information to know who can succeed as a program leader. We don't get to interview candidates and call people who can provide in depth recommendations. A good AD will be able see beyond the resume. I'm glad we have a good AD making this hire.

Sweetchuck13 on March 13 @ 05:32 AM CDT

I think Groce would be excellent as a broadcaster - that's a great idea. If nothing else it would give him a year to relax a bit and reflect on what went wrong before he takes another coaching job.

Bear8287 on March 13 @ 10:48 AM CDT

it would give him a year to relax a bit and reflect on what went wrong before he takes another coaching job.


I've never met John Groce personally, but from all accounts he sounds like a really nice guy and I wish him nothing but the best.

Perhaps it's been my distance and only being able to measure his performance based on games that I've seen in person and on television that's kept me more objective about the direction that the program has been heading and has also made it easier for me to be more vocal about there needing to be a change.

The fact that so many people seem to support him is a strong testament to his personal character.

I also applaud Josh Whitman's ability to separate his responsibilities as the Athletic Director from his friendships. It's a management style question as to whether you develop a "friendship" with your employees and many would advise against it just because it can make situations and decisions like this even more difficult.

Personally, I lean towards JW's approach and prefer to cultivate stronger ties and try to help people however possible while still doing the best possible job for the company (university). If it makes some things a bit tougher on me as a manager, so be it.

As Josh pointed out some very good people found out that they were losing their jobs on Saturday. I don't celebrate that fact, but am encouraged by Josh's leadership and the hope for brighter days for the Illini basketball program.

Back to John Groce, taking some time to step away, decompress and evaluate would likely do him some real good. He'll be receiving a nice parting package from the university and should certainly be able to afford to do this before hopping back into a frantic paced job.

I appreciate his need to stay positive, but some of his "turning the corner" comments, especially after dropping the last two games, were on the verge of delusional.

It would do him some good to put a little distance between himself and the Illini program in order to get an objective look at what was working and what was not. Given how far short this season's team fell from its potential is a strong indicator that everything in fact was not working. He needs to figure that out and taking some time out to do that might just be the best thing that he could do if he really wants to become a successful NCAA Div 1 head basketball coach.

Nashvegas Illini on March 12 @ 04:16 AM CDT

Like all of you I respect how Groce handled his business but who's playing potential did he max out? Maybe Brandon Paul or Ray Rice? That's about it. My wife likes screamers like Frank Martin (yes that is what she said) because kids need that wake up call to lock into the details and so she can feel like she's not the only one screaming. Groce's style of letting kids play and not wanting to yank guys for mistakes killed him this year and ultimately got him fired.

Gotta add this disclaimer that I don't want Frank Martin as our next HC. I want a guy that can play an aggressive open offensive style that's at least interesting to watch. Kids don't naturally want to play for screamer but those guys who do it right get the most out there talent.

STLINI on March 13 @ 09:17 AM CDT

I have a very similar story for you Robert. One that further speaks to the disconnect that may have been there. Friend of mine is a high school coach and attended a coaching seminar at a small school in Illinois (may have been Wesleyan, can't remember which school). But two of the coaches there were Groce and Jamie Dixon. So there were some players there, and each coach took those players, and basically taught them their offense while explaining it to the coaches in attendance. My friend said that within 10 minutes, Dixon has the players running his offense, and it was very clear to all the coaches what his philosophies were and what he was trying to do. He said Dixon was very impressive with how he got his point across.

Then it was Groce's turn, and my friend said that the players and the coaches in attendance were extremely confused at what he was trying to do. He said it was like Groce was trying to be too cute or too smart with his terminology and the way he explained things. Said it was just very confusing.

I know Groce has a math background and is a smart guy, but a story like that always made me wonder if Groce just wasn't able to communicate the way he needed to.

MWIllini15 on March 13 @ 10:39 AM CDT

I am hoping that I am personally misreading some of these statements about John Groce.

Groce did not live up to the expectations of the program. He did not succeed at a National level. The firing was within reason. It was time for a change in direction.

The comments suggesting that he try a new career seem pretty unwarranted. Again, I hopeful I am simply overthinking the true intentions of a few comments.

Would Groce be a terrific Motivational Speaker or Broadcaster? Surely!

You know what else he is pretty great at? Coaching basketball. Just because Illinois did not win the B1G does not make him an incapable coach. He experienced several highly successful moments, but as the article stated, could not put it all together.

Coaching at a mid-major program such as, say, Cleveland State, would still allow Groce to make plenty of money and make a meaningful, successful impact on handfuls of young student-athletes. If a Coach fails at Illinois, that doesn't suggest he should try a different career path.

I would probably run through a wall after his Insurance Conference, but I feel the suggestions that he may have missed his true calling imply that he was never cut out to coach in the first place. To me, that is absurd. Several very, very good coaches fail to make immediate impacts at the high-major level.

Coaching is not easy. It is an incredibly difficult job as I am sure everyone on here can appreciate. It wasn't long ago that everyone on this message board was singing his praises.

Best of luck and fingers crossed to the next coach.

Bear8287 on March 13 @ 11:39 AM CDT

Coaching at a mid-major program such as, say, Cleveland State,

Okay, now I'm just wondering if you came here just to mess with the IlliniBoard readers.

So you think that there's a possibility that Mike Thomas would hire John Groce again to be the head coach of one of his basketball programs?

If so, please tell us more...

Cleveland State AD Mike Thomas set for fresh start
By Elton Alexander, The Plain Dealer
on February 08, 2017 at 3:00 PM,
updated February 08, 2017 at 3:03 PM

Bear8287 on March 13 @ 11:38 AM CDT

HiggsBoson on March 13 @ 12:40 PM CDT

As far as I know, John Groce has never been arrested, so maybe he is of good character. Not much of a coach, based on his career results. Not much of a leader, based on all the disciplinary issues his players have had. Not much of a motivator, based on his teams' wildly inconsistent play and tendency to roll over and play dead at critical moments. Pretty good at slogans and press conferences, but below average as a recruiting. He's enthusiastic, though enthusiasm in the absence of competence is annoying.

I don't think he would make a good broadcaster, though if he tries that line of work, it should be on the radio rather than TV since if looking goofy on the sideline was a crime, he'd likely be facing life without parole.

I honestly don't think he should be a head coach at any level, though he might be ok as an assistant to somebody who knows how to coach.

From where I sit, his best career option might be as a middle school math teacher at a school where they let him help out with the basketball team as an unpaid volunteer.

No, I don't like him. Yes, I was dubious about hiring him. No, I've never thought he was going to succeed at Illinois, though like a lot of people that first season conned me a bit.

Now it's time to move on.

MWIllini15 on March 14 @ 02:40 AM CDT

Yeah, he is bad at everything. He did not succeed at your favorite school, so he is bad at everything. This is childish. If John Groce lacks all of those character traits as a successful ( yes, successful ) NCAA Basketball Coach then there is no hope for any of us on this message board.

I mentioned Cleveland State earlier as I have seen it rumored on Twitter.

@ESPN1050_Ryan Mar 11 John groce in all seriousness could end up at Cleveland state with Mike Thomas. Can tell he wants to get right back to coaching.

Pat Forde?Verified account @YahooForde Illinois announces it is firing John Groce. Cuonzo Watch expands to Illinois/Missouri. Don't be shocked if Groce lands at Cleveland State.

Bear8287 on March 14 @ 08:24 AM CDT

I find the prospect of John Groce coaching for Mike Thomas again quite fascinating, especially given all of the rumors of how Thomas didn't seem to have a very good relationship with his head coaches.

It's not necessarily clear (to me anyway) why either of them would really want to do this. The article linked above has "Mike Thomas set for a fresh start" in the title and going back and hiring a coach that didn't work out at his last stop, hardly seems like getting off to a "fresh start".

10 Teams in the Horizon League and 3 of them had 24 wins this season: Northern Kentucky, league tournament winner off to the NCAAT and Oakland and Valparaiso who both tied for the regular season title and are playing in the NIT. So while, this conference is clearly a step down from the B1G, it's not a pushover either.

Why Cleveland State works for John Groce:

  1. Easier competition than the B1G.
  2. It's back to Ohio where he had a modicum of success as an assistant at OSU and head coach at Ohio U.
  3. He'll probably recruit reasonably well compared to his peers in that conference.

Why Cleveland State doesn't work:

  1. He probably starts as maybe the 4th best coach in a conference of 10 that typically only sends one team to the NCAAT.
  2. In 4 years at Illinois the Thomas/Groce combination had little success, so it's not clear why "getting the band back together" here makes any more sense.
  3. John Groce would probably really benefit from taking a year away from head coaching to gain a little perspective.

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