John Groce sat down with our Paul Klee ... and the two had plenty to talk about (read the introduction at our HQ Facebook page here):
Is this the longest you’ve been in town (three days) since the contact period began (Sept. 9)? Yeah, it is. I was gone Sunday through Thursday. Then an official visit. Then gone Sunday through Thursday. Then an official visit. Then Sunday-Monday gone and I’m back here until the weekend when we have our clinics in Chicago.
Is this a normal John Groce schedule during an open recruiting period? No, this is extreme. I’ve been gone longer than I would prefer to be. It’s a combination of recruiting and just speaking engagements and commitments that I’ve made. (Tuesday night) I’m speaking in Tuscola. I have a rule that once Oct. 12 hits, I don’t do anything outside of the Champaign-Urbana area. I feel like I would be taking away from our team and our players and my family. So I try to stay here. That’s how it was when I was at Ohio. I just always had that rule. There are obviously a lot of great causes and events I would like to attend — and I’d love to do them all — but I can’t do all of them. That part’s a little different here. I’ve had to say “no” more than I’d like to. There are just more demands at Illinois than there were at Ohio. So the rest of this week and next week, I’m bottled up. Then Oct. 12 hits and I’m going to shut it down.
You are recruiting nationally more often than most coaches at Illinois. Is that something you expect to do in the future or is it a by-product of the state’s talent? We do. I think Illinois (the program) obviously has a regional name but also a national name. But we’d be foolish not to take care of that six-hour radius near your campus. That’s pretty important. I think we’ve done a good job of mixing both. But at the end of the day, it’s about filling spots on your roster with guys that fit your school, fit your style of play, fit our coaching staff. That’s what we’re looking for — the right fits.
It’s like my dad used to say: “One man’s junk might be another man’s treasure.” It all depends on how a person looks at a prospect or a player. We’re looking for specific things. In a perfect world, my wife would prefer if those players were closer, so I could get home easier. But that’s not always the case. We know what kind of player we want, and if we have to go (outside the region) to get him, that’s what we’ll do. I think it’s more about finding the right fit for how we play. Fortunately, Illinois not only has a regional name, but it’s a nationally recognized program.
You’ve had some recruiting success already (Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate). Has recruiting players to Illinois been easier or tougher than you expected? I don’t think it’s ever easy. Anything you do that’s worthwhile is never easy. I think it’s built momentum, for sure. We’re starting to build momentum and excitement. I think you can feel that. Our assistants have done a great job of working on the recruiting front. In a very short period of time — roughly six months — I think we’ve made a lot of progress. Not only is it a short period of time, but you’re talking about a 2013 class where you’re trying to get commitments and signings from five guys. That’s a lot of guys. It would be different if you needed one or two. But we’ve got five. That makes it fun but challenging. That takes time and effort and due diligence. The assistants have done a great job. They really have.
You still want to take five (in 2013)? How badly do you need a point guard in that class? I think it’s really important. Ball handling, for sure, is important. I think we’re going to need to take one (point guard), for sure. But more importantly, we need to add ball handlers. After being here for six months, it might be in our best interest to take a couple ball handlers to add to what we have already. So more than one. But it has to be the right fit. But yes, we want to take five. I think we need to.
How long does it take you to get over a recruiting disappointment — when a prospect you targeted commits elsewhere? I think when you put that much time into recruiting a prospect and his circle, it takes some time. No one likes to be told “no.” But at the same time, if you do it long enough, and you’re going for good players, and you swing, you’re not going to get all of them. You look at the top salesmen in the world; they don’t like to hear no. It motivates them more. You can’t let that deter you.
I tell the guys the Tony Gwynn story all the time. He’s a Hall of Fame batter and one of the best hitters of all time. And he hit, what, .333? So two-thirds of the time he didn’t get a hit. But every time Tony Gwynn went up to the plate, he thought he was getting a hit every time. I think that’s how great salesmen think, how great businessmen think, how great recruiters think. It’s no different than what we ask our players to do. If you swallow the poison of success when things go well or you become dysfunctional when there is a disappointment, that’s not what we want to do here. And we’ve had a lot of things go well with recruiting since we’ve been here. But that’s not good enough. If the staff isn’t staying even-keeled and having some mental toughness through adversity, how the heck are the players going to do that?
I usually sleep on it. By that time it’s passed and it’s in the rearview mirror.
What are you most looking forward to when this contact period is over? I’d like to get it where I can exercise again. I’ve probably exercised less in the past six months than I ever did before. I’ve got to exercise again. I’ve got to get a routine going once practice starts on Oct. 12.
With this schedule, ever wake up in a hotel and forget what city you’re in? Not really. I enjoy traveling. I like meeting new people. I like recruiting. I like all the aspects of it. I love competing and recruiting is a part of competing. I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting people, different types of people, different areas of the country. Every family’s different. I like that part.
How has (Allison) and your (two) kids transitioned to C-U? They’re doing well. Obviously I’d like to have more consistent time with them, but that will come once we get settled. I’ve always said it takes one year to get settled and it takes two years to get comfortable. I’ve always noticed that in every transition we’ve had as a family and prior to having a family. It takes one year to get settled and two years to get into a routine within the community and your daily routines. Those things happen about after a year.
What are your expectations for Brandon Paul? What does he need to do to be an All-Big Ten guard as a senior? I think he’s talented enough to have a special year. I think the biggest thing for him is two things. One is consistency. Pat Riley says all the time, “I’ll take consistency over greatness.” He needs to have consistency in everything he does, both on and off the court. And that’s not hard for Brandon. You know how Brandon is. He cares a lot about being really good. He wants to watch film. He wants you to give him DVDs (of games). He wants to be great. We just need him to be more consistent with his performance and production. I think the other thing is the whole concept of leading and bringing the best out of others around him. I think those are the two things we need from Brandon at a higher level than he’s done them for the last three years.
How do you handle captains? Do the coaches name them? I let those guys vote. But I tell them that I am very poignant and very crystal clear about what I expect out of a captain. And I read it to them probably 10 times before there is ever a vote. So they know exactly what is expected of a captain. I tell them, “You need to vote for the guys on this team that emulate the following characteristics the best.” And that is regardless of class. They must identify who it is that fits those qualities the very best. That is very important to what we do. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Nobody is perfect. But whoever’s motives fit these things, that’s who will be our captains. The staff votes as well. The players vote. And sometimes that leads you to one or two captains or sometimes you have three or four. It depends on how the voting goes.
In your coaching career, which player fit those criteria better than the rest? The criteria that we give to them are a high standard. I thought (Ohio guard) Walter Offutt was an outstanding captain. He was an unbelievable leader. I thought (Ohio State point guard) Je’Kel Foster was that way. He was a phenomenal leader. I thought (Butler guard and Illinois staffer) Brandon Miller was that way when we were at Butler. There aren’t many more. There have only been 5-10 guys that exemplify those things at the highest level. They hold themselves and those around them to a higher standard.
I wrote about the “Players Handbook” that you distributed to the team. What does that manual entail and where did it originate? That’s something that has developed over the years that I’ve been a head coach. It really started back when I was at Ohio State (in 2006). That’s where the first one was that we handed out. The first one wasn’t real thick. It was just general stuff. Since then, I’ve tweaked it to fit my personality, my convictions, what we want to teach. It’s gotten a little bit thicker over the last five years. It’s a manual that has our core stuff in it. It shows the players — in print — what we’re going to be about, where we’re going, how we’re going to do things. It defines everyone’s role in that scheme.
I think that’s important, so that guys know what is expected of them. I think when you do that, it actually gives them more freedom. They know exactly what is expected of them. There’s no guesswork. They’re not floating. They don’t have doubts. That gives them more freedom of mind.
What is your dream job? I think when I took this one, for me, it’s one of them. It’s one I thought about over the years. That’s why I’m here. I said that before and I mean that. The Big Ten Conference means a lot to me, because of where I grew up. I coached in it before. It’s what I watched when I was a kid. I came to a game here. I saw games at Mackey Arena and at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. This is a dream come true for me. I think certainly Illinois is right there on that list. When I was making the decision (of whether to leave Ohio), I kept writing down the top four or five jobs for me and my family and what fit us the best. Illinois kept coming up on that list. I said, “There’s no way (he could turn it down).” It’s too good of an opportunity. As difficult as it was to leave our guys (at Ohio), and I really loved them, I just thought this was too good of an opportunity for our immediate family. It certainly hasn’t been disappointing in any regard.
I’m not only excited for next week (the official start of practice), but I’m excited for the vision that we have for where we can go.
How long did you have to accept or decline the job offer from Illinois? It happened so fast. Allison and I talked about it over a period of 24-48 hours before we came to a decision. We knew that Illinois was a special opportunity — not only from a basketball perspective, but also for our family. It was an unbelievable fit. After being here six months, we feel even more strongly about that decision.
The preseason polls and magazines are being released. Expectations for this (Illinois) team are low. What are your expectations for this team? My biggest expectation for this team — and we’ve got it on our bracelets (“TNT”) — is we want to be tough and together. We want to be cohesive in every single thing we do, whether that’s practice or in the weight room or in a shootaround or in a game. We want to be together. It’s about toughness and togetherness. And that’s hard to do. Life, ball, a season — those things can be a roller coaster. We have to stay rock solid, mentally. I think it all starts with the mind. That’s No. 1.
I think the second thing we want to establish is a competitiveness, a spirit, a passion in which we play with that inspires people. That’s what we’re looking for. I always told my guys at Ohio, “When people watched you play basketball tonight, what type of impression did you give them — win or lose? Did you inspire someone or somebody?” I want us to inspire people. We will do that through our competitiveness. And that goes back to the togetherness.
And I think the third thing is that expect us to get better every single day. And I mean, every day. I fully believe you can get better — in some way in your life — every single day. I fully expect us to be better at the end of the year than at the beginning. That’s extremely important to me. I fully expect the team that you watch in February and March will be better than the team you watch in October and November. They know that. I’ve told them. Let’s face it. It’s a new system on both sides of the ball. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that learning curve is not steep. We want it to be as shallow as possible. But there is a curve there. I fully expect us to get better as the year goes on.
We’re going to get better. The wins and losses take care of themselves. But I think the way you chart that is through statistics. We’ll watch those very carefully. And I think some of the intangible things you can feel as a coach. That’s about chemistry and guys’ ability to bounce back after a loss and guys’ ability to handle success and still play well in the next game. Those are some things that you can’t put a number on. As a coach, you know that. It’s there and it exists or it doesn’t. We will look at statistical analysis as well as intangible analysis. That’s what I expect. At that point, you let the chips fall.
What type of statistics do you value? Defensively, we value field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage. We value those at a high level. And we value how many turnovers we’re forcing. That shows us how aggressive we are. If we’re forcing turnovers, we’re getting blocks and steals and getting on loose balls and tipping passes. I think those are the three (statistical) things on defense we’re looking at.
Offensively, I’m looking at two things first. I’m looking at free throw attempts. And I’m looking at assists-to-turnover ratio. Those are the two things I’m looking at right out of the games. From there, I’m looking at percentages — field goal, three-point and free throw percentages. But getting to the foul line tells me that we’re being aggressive. The other stat that tells me we’re being aggressive is offensive rebounding percentage. If I think we’re doing a good job on the offensive glass and we’re getting to the foul line, that tells me one thing: We’re being aggressive. That’s what we want to be. We want to be aggressive. There’s a balance there. We want guys to take care of the ball, but we don’t want guys to play cautious, either. That’s not what we’re about.
That’s what I always try to tell them. We need to play with about 12 (turnovers). That way they think, “Well, he doesn’t expect us to play perfect.” We don’t want to be silly and ridiculous and beat ourselves and have 15 or 18 or 20 turnovers. But the way we play, depending on the opponent, there’s going to be about 75-80 offensive possessions in a game. If you turn it over 20 times, that’s one out of four possessions when you didn’t even get a shot off. So we want to play with about 12 (turnovers).
Do you keep a hustle chart? We do. We used to call it something different. Here, we’re going to continue to call it the “Matto” chart. We will continue to honor the Matt Heldman. Those types of things — charges taken, deflections — if you’re doing those things, you’re forcing turnovers. That’s what our teams have been good at recently. It means they’re active. You hear football coaches talk about, “Flying around and making plays.” That’s what we did the last couple of years (at Ohio). We played hard. We covered for one another.
You gave (orange) bracelets to the players and staff. They have the date of the NCAA tournament on them (3/19/13). Do you believe this is a tournament team? You have to believe that. In order for that to happen, you first have to believe that can happen. I know we’ve got a lot of doubters out there. There are a lot of people that don’t think we can. But it doesn’t matter what people think. And that’s not being disrespectful to other people. The people in charge of making that (NCAA tournament) happen are the players, first and foremost, and then the staff and the support staff and the people that are part of the program. Everyone has to do his or her part at the highest level.
There are no guarantees. But you want to put yourself in the best possible position to make it happen. Once you get into the tournament, anything can happen in the tournament. That’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament. I was told, “The key to advancing in the tournament is being in it.” I think we owe it to our seniors to think that way. We’re going to do everything we can to put them in the best position we can to have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Obviously it’s going to be challenging. But I love challenges and I think we have a group of coaches that like challenges.
A lot of has to do with how you respond to adversity through the course of 31 games. When you lose a game, the sky is not falling. When you win a game, they’re not shutting down the town. People are still going to work. So don’t get too high or too low. We’ve tried to learn from every circumstance. We have to move on and get better. I think it starts with the staff. If our staff thinks that way and we can get some of our seniors to think that way, we should be in good shape.