CHAMPAIGN — Moments after the final buzzer sounded on his first game as Illinois head coach, John Groce made his way toward the Orange Krush. He threw both fists in the air and traded high-fives with members of the raucous student section, many of whom were wearing bald wigs as a tribute to the follicly challenged coach.
On the other end of the arena in Section A37, Larry Groce’s chest swelled with pride as he watched his son celebrate a 75-55 win against Colgate.
“Tonight was his dream; he’s coached college basketball before at Ohio, but this is his dream to be right here in the Big Ten,” said Dad, decked out in an orange Illinois polo and blue Illini baseball cap. “This is a big deal for us.”
Larry Groce made the two-hour drive from Danville, Ind., with John’s stepmom, Linda Groce.
John Groce’s mom, Barbara Steele, in an orange-and-white-striped button down, who was joined by her husband, Jerry Steele, could hardly find the words to describe seeing her son as the lead man on a Big Ten bench.
“It’s surreal. Basketball has been a part of our lives forever,” she said. “We’ve watched Big Ten basketball forever, and we’re just happy to be a part of this at Illinois.”
Even after the high-fives with the Krush and the celebration with his players while being presented the game ball from Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, Groce maintained it wasn’t about him — even though the evidence proved otherwise.
“It’s about these guys, it’s a privilege to coach at the University of Illinois,” Groce said. “Once the ball is tipped, we’re coaching. It’s about these guys. (Former Illinois) Coach (Lou) Henson said to me that as long as you keep in mind that it’s about Illinois, you’ll be in good shape.”
Illinois appears to be in good shape, though it was just one game.
True to form, senior Brandon Paul continued his strong showing in season openers. The 6-foot-4 guard poured in a team-high 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists against only two turnovers.
Paul averages 18.5 points per game in season openers.
Tracy Abrams added 13 points with five assists and Tyler Griffey contributed 10 points for the Illini, whose intensity throughout matched their head coach’s.
After Nnanna Egwu (seven points, six rebounds) put back an Abrams miss late in a first half that saw the Illini drill 10 of 18 three-point attempts, Groce unleashed a fist pump that might have Tiger Woods calling for tips.
“It definitely helps us out,” Paul said of Groce’s intensity. “He comes in every day, whether it’s practice, film, weights and games, he comes in real enthusiastic, and it kind of rubs off on us and we appreciate that, and it helps us get our minds focused and be ready to play for him.”
The Illinois players and fans are learning about Groce’s intensity. Those who know him best are well aware of it. That’s why he’s living his dream.
“He was always just so focused,” Mom said. “He always knew what he wanted to do. Anybody who grew up with John wouldn’t be surprised that he’s where he is now.”