CHAMPAIGN — In January 2006, Ohio State coach Thad Matta did the right thing and gave assistant John Groce an option: accompany the Buckeyes to Iowa for a Big Ten matchup against the Hawkeyes or stay in Columbus with wife Allison, who was due to give birth to the couple’s first child on the day of the game.
“John said, ‘No, no, no, I’m making the trip,’ ” Allison Groce recalled. “Thad was kind of like ‘Thank God.’ He was hoping John would say that.”
The situation worked out for all involved. Allison was induced a few days early and gave birth to Conner while John watched film of Iowa on his laptop in the delivery room.
“He always gets out of the hard stuff,” Allison said.
Truth is, Groce could have skipped the game and Matta would have been perfectly fine with the decision. “He knows how to treat people,” Allison said.
Matta and Groce are close. Their families are close.
The two first met when Groce was a prep star playing at Danville (Ind.) High for Todd Lickliter while Matta was starring collegiately at nearby Butler. Groce was an assistant coach to Matta for eight years at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State.
“They worked together so long that they’re almost like brothers,” Allison Groce said.
The brotherhood will be put on hold today as Matta brings his eighth-ranked Ohio State squad to the Assembly Hall for a tilt against Groce and No. 11 Illinois (1:15, BTN).
The two used to speak frequently about basketball, family and anything else when Groce left Ohio State for his first head-coaching gig at Ohio in 2008. But with their teams set to meet on the court for the first time, the communication has been limited.
“We still talk frequently, but it’s more personal in nature now,” Groce said.
Groce said he’s learned a lot from Matta and credits the Hoopeston native with his ascent through the college basketball coaching ranks.
“I wouldn’t be standing here with the wonderful opportunity to be at the University of Illinois without him,” he said.
Coaching against friends is always an uncomfortable situation, but Groce has had plenty of experience during the early portion of his first year at Illinois.
In the title game of the Maui Invitational, Groce matched wits against Brad Stevens, with whom he worked at Butler under Matta. A game later, Illinois played Gardner-Webb, a team coached by Chris Holtmann, who played with Groce at Taylor University and was on his coaching staff at Ohio.
“He’s competitive, I’m competitive and when that ball tips at 1:15, we’re not going to be thinking a whole lot about that,” Groce said. “We’ll put our guys in position to be successful. Our assistant coaches and staff have put together a good game plan, and I’m sure his have done the same.”
Brandon Miller played for Matta at Butler. He worked on Matta’s staffs at Xavier and Ohio State with Groce before deciding to step away from basketball for the 2011-12 season.
He was talked into returning to the game by Groce, in large part because of the familiarity.
“Both work extremely hard. Both take coaching as a profession; they’re both grinders, and both get their players to run through walls for them,” said Miller, Illinois’ special assistant to the head coach. “The grind and the daily preparation of both of them is what stands out most to me. They put in so much work.”
At 45, Matta already has become a godfather of his own coaching tree. Stevens at Butler, Groce, Arizona’s Sean Miller, Dayton’s Archie Miller and UNC-Charlotte’s Alan Major are among the head coaches who have worked for Matta.
When Brandon Miller broke into the profession at Xavier in 2004, Groce, Sean Miller and Major were the assistant coaches.
“It was a great time to get into coaching and learn from that staff and be around that every day,” he said. “I found out very quickly. I’m blessed to have been put in that spot and be able to learn from those guys, bright, bright coaches, and I think their success speaks for itself.”
David Lighty is one of the best players in Ohio State history. But between games playing for the Nanterre basketball club in France, the former Buckeyes swingman finds himself keeping tabs on Illinois and the coach who recruited him to Ohio State.
“He made me feel comfortable. He continues to have a relationship with me and some of the other guys. I still talk to him to this day,” Lighty said of Groce. “He and Coach Matta just have such a love for the game. They’re always watching film, dissecting something.”
That Groce has had so much success at Ohio and now at Illinois doesn’t surprise Lighty. When Groce came into the weightroom to inform the Ohio State players he was leaving for the job at Ohio in 2008, Lighty made a proclamation.
“I congratulated him and told him he was going to do big things as a head coach,” Lighty said. “You can already tell he’s doing well. I know Coach Matta is proud of him.”
While Groce was learning X’s and O’s from Matta, his wife was picking up cues from Matta’s wife, Barbara. Barbara Matta created a family atmosphere among all the assistant coaches and their families.
It’s something Allison has tried to emulate since her husband became a head coach five years ago.
“I always looked up to Barb. She’s a great mom, great wife and a great overall example of a coach’s wife,” Allison Groce said. “When John first started working with Thad, I thought they had this huge production going on. Her family would come into town, and she was really good with entertaining and always including us and the other coaches’ wives. It made us all closer.”
Whichever team wins today, its coach and his family will celebrate the win. At the same time, it’ll be bittersweet.
“I have no hard feelings against them if they were to come out winners — I hope they don’t,” Allison Groce said. “It’s a little different than if we were going against someone else. You’re happy but it’s a different feeling because you’re close to them and you hate to see them lose. I’m sure they feel the same way.”