Groce, staff continue at full speed
By MARCUS JACKSON
CHAMPAIGN — It’s 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and Jamall Walker is comforting his 3-month-old son Braylon, who is awake and crying.
So much for sleep.
At 8 a.m., the Illinois assistant basketball coach is in his office at Ubben Basketball Complex, making recruiting calls. Soon he’s off to the Irwin Academic Center to listen to Dan Tudor host a seminar for Walker and other coaches from various UI athletic programs about ways to make advancements in recruiting.
“You can always learn something. You can always pick up something and get better,” Walker says.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Walker’s back at Ubben — and back on the phone, talking up recruits.
“I’ve got another one I need to make here in a few minutes,” Walker says. “Then I might actually get to eat some food.”
The 35-year-old spends the afternoon poring over film of Tuesday’s opponent, Iowa.
In charge of the scouting report for the Hawkeyes, Walker studies video of recent games to have a plan ready for coach John Groce by the time Saturday’s home finale against Nebraska is over.
“He’s going to want to have an idea of what we’re going to do because we’re going to meet on that Sunday morning,” Walker says.
After breaking down the Iowa video and making still more recruiting calls — the players had Wednesday off, so there’s no practice — Walker hopes to be home no later than 7 p.m. Braylon goes to bed at 8, and he wants to spend time with him before that.
“That’s actually pretty early for me,” he says. “This is a chill week.”
A chill week for Walker and the rest of the coaching staff consists of 12-hour days despite a six-day break between games.
On Monday, the staff and players gathered to watch the film of Sunday’s loss to Michigan, breaking into position groups for further evaluation.
On Tuesday, there was a staff meeting to prepare for that day’s practice at the Assembly Hall.
On Thursday morning, the Nebraska scouting report was put into place and delivered to the players later that day in practice.
Friday, the game plan will be tweaked and further implemented in another team practice.
“In season is in season; there is no such thing as downtime,” assistant coach Dustin Ford says. “Maybe a bye week allows you to go out recruiting; I was crammed when we got back. The office hours are the same. You get here when it’s dark, and you leave here when it’s dark. That’s just part of the deal. A bye week doesn’t mean you can shut it down. You try to take advantage of that and get caught up.”
Ford is in the office at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Like Walker, he is making recruiting calls and penning personal letters to recruits in the first hour.
He has a meeting scheduled at 10 a.m., but office manager Julie Pioletti informs the visitor Ford is on the phone.
“I was talking to a (high school) coach,” he says.
His day consists of catching up on recruiting, touching base with athletes, their coaches and their families, as well as digging into film of Nebraska.
Assistant coach Paris Parham, who has the Nebraska scout, is on the road recruiting. But Ford is using the time to get a jump on the Cornhuskers ahead of Thursday morning’s staff meeting where the strategy will be discussed before it’s delivered to the players in practice.
“It’s unparalleled what these guys do,” senior forward Tyler Griffey says. “The stuff they document and see on film about certain players on the opposing team, we’ll have plays to exploit those things. They do such a good job of telling us what they’re looking for, and we’re ready when we’re out there during the games.”
The 40-inch high-definition monitor hanging from the wall in Ford’s office is wired for satellite TV. It also connects to one of the three personal computers on his desk and allows him to watch film.
While controlling the Nebraska film clips from one laptop, Ford uses software that allows him to break down clips based on his preference.
For example, if he wants to see every offensive possession for the Cornhuskers in the last five games, he can watch those in order. Or, if he wants to watch all 42 three-pointers Dylan Talley has made this season, he can make one click and watch them.
Across the hall, Brandon Miller, special assistant to the head coach, also is watching Nebraska film.
“You’re trying to find ways to make your team better from film, to preparation, you name it,” Ford says. “Everybody will take time to look at film of the upcoming opponent, even if it’s not your scout. You’re going to watch so you can be on top of things.”
While taking notes on Nebraska, Ford floats the idea of making the drive to Peoria later that night to watch Bradley, which is coached by his older brother Geno, play at home against Creighton.
“I really want to get over there, but I’m not going to be out of here in time,” Ford says.
Lunch is day to day.
“You fit that in whenever you can. Obviously, I don’t miss many meals; I’m gonna find a way to eat. Half the time, managers are making runs for us,” Ford says. “Today, maybe a little Culver’s, a little fried chicken with a large milkshake. Get the fried chicken with a breast and a leg, a little hot sauce; it’s real good.”
Walker usually packs his lunch. He’s trying to lose weight.
“I usually gain 10 to 15 pounds during the season and I’m at 10 right now, so I need to be careful the rest of the way, then I’ll lose it once the season ends,” he says. “My wife (Rebekah) usually packs my lunch for me, and I’m like a kid in the lunchroom wondering what it is. It’s usually leftovers, or she’ll make me a sandwich.”
Before Ford and Walker leave for lunch, Mike LaTulip and Kevin Berardini stop by to shoot the breeze.
Berardini talks of his career winding down, while LaTulip entertains his coaches with stories about his high school baseball career — there’s a reason he’s playing hoops — and his spot-on impersonations of the coaching staff.
The freshman, who will use his day off to get his new iPhone activated, nails impersonations of Ford, Walker and director of operations Mark Morris, leaving them all in stitches.
“Even though today is an off day, our guys like to stop by just to say ‘What’s up’ or whatever, and that’s totally on them,” Walker says. “It’s good to have that, to just sit and talk to them about whatever and not be so serious about basketball all the time.”
Which, even during an off week, is a full-time job.