You have to love Groce

Illini coach has team believing in him, his methods and themselves

Nothing on Valentine's Day says "I love you'' like a private jet whisking your date away to an exotic locale where you have dinner reservations.

Still, Illinois coach John Groce realized asking his wife, Allison, to accompany him Feb. 14 on the university plane for a recruiting trip to New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, N.M., and a meal at a fancy local restaurant stretched the definition of romance.

This guy really must be one persuasive recruiter.

"Two hours on the plane there and back, you don't get that kind of time away from kids,'' said Groce, a father of two sons. "We actually had a great time. It reminded us of when we first started dating and got married.''

This is about a match worth celebrating.

Oh, and the Groces enjoy a happy marriage too.

When Illinois hired Groce last March many of us, including athletic director Mike Thomas, initially had other candidates with sexier names who came to mind first. Groce ignored any doubts and attacked the job with a level of confidence exceeded only by his persistence. Indefatigable, Groce talks fast enough to frustrate a stenographer and moves even faster at work.

Any concerns about Groce's ability to recruit Chicago subsided quickly after he signed two Simeon players in November. Any reservations about Groce matching wits with Big Ten coaches diminished as the Illini won five straight conference games to arrive Sunday at No. 7 Michigan as the hottest team in the league.

"I was impressed with his Ohio teams but didn't know if he was the right fit,'' acknowledged ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo, a former Illini player. "But he's so positive you can't help but be affected. This team quit last year. Groce has gotten them to forget about that and get their confidence back. He should be up for Big Ten coach of the year.''

Knocking off No. 1 Indiana provided the season's signature moment. Beating Minnesota on its home court three nights later left the most indelible mark of Groce's impact. The Illini's maniacal focus was totally Groce.

"That's when I really knew we had taken some significant steps,'' Groce said. "You're dealing with 18-to-22-year-olds who everybody was telling them how good they are. We had to get our minds back and we did. Our guys trust themselves more. They trust the guy next to them more, the system more, the coaches more.''

The nucleus includes the same Illinois players, except NBA first-rounder Meyers Leonard, from the group whose late-season collapse got Bruce Weber fired. The main problem revolved around team chemistry. Funny, a season later in Champaign, so does the solution.

Take senior Brandon Paul. Groce picks starters based on who grades out highest defensively in practice and games. Paul, the school's 10th-all-time leading scorer, didn't start Feb. 3 against Wisconsin. Instead of sulking, Paul chose sweating and worked his way back into the lineup. The Illini haven't lost since.

Tyler Griffey, the hero against the Hoosiers, lost his starting role but gained an edge. Tracy Abrams did whatever Groce asked, whenever he asked it. D.J. Richardson emerged as a consistent leader every first-year coach needs.

"Last year, players weren't on the same page but this year we've gotten more mature and that showed during the rough stretch,'' Paul said in reference to a midseason 3-8 skid following a 12-0 start. "We kept grinding it out because Coach (Groce) comes in with so much energy every day.''

Groce's pace amuses the Illini as much as energizes them. Freshman Mike LaTulip averages 2.4 minutes per game but perhaps contributes most with his Groce impersonation. It involves intricate hand gestures and head movements, Paul says giggling. A former math teacher, Groce knows laughter factors into every winning equation.

"We always joke around with him,'' Paul said.

Yet they respect the structure Groce provides, such as accepting Groce's Feb. 6 decision to suspend players' Twitter accounts. Groce believed his team's concentration was being compromised 140 characters at a time.

"I believe in freedom of speech,'' Groce explained. "But you get off to a 12-0 start and social-media wise, it's like these guys are rock stars. Then you don't play as well, they're scum. I said, 'Fellas, that's the way of the world. The reality is you're not rock stars. You're not scum. You're somewhere in-between.' I wasn't sure we were staying level with social-media stuff.''

Since the Twitter ban, the Illini are unbeaten. #NoCoincidence

"Sometimes character really gets undervalued,'' Groce said. "I don't want to underestimate the fabric and DNA of who our guys are inside and how their resilience is why we are where we are.''

Optimists might say the Illini are peaking just in time to make a rare NCAA tournament run. But Groce is too busy for romantic notions.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

 
Talk about it
Join other sports fans on our Ravens message board SUBSCRIBE TO THIS FEED

PHOTO GALLERIES

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Google Plus
  • RSS Feeds
  • Mobile Alerts and Apps

RAVENS & FOOTBALL VIDEOS

SPORTS PICTURES

Orioles in March and April 2014 [Pictures]

Orioles in April

Welcome to The Baltimore Sun's Ravens game story database. Use the search prompts below for access to Baltimore Sun stories for every game in Ravens history.