If it’s high-stakes poker, and you’re dealt a winning hand, go all in. Play it to the hilt. Push every last chip in the middle.
That’s the Mike Thomas motto, and good for him.
This is the guy who dares to change the name and appearance of downstate’s most iconic structure — the Assembly Hall — in an undertaking that, counting interest on 30-year bonds, will cost 32 times what it took to build it ($8.35 million) a half-century ago.
And this is a guy who uncovered a hat trick of a basketball hire, an absolute grand slam. John Groce didn’t win every game, but he did just about everything right in his first UI season. And Thomas wants him at the reins when the building is finished.
OK, like all these elite coaches, Groce’s salary is outrageous. It’s way more than the president of the university and will soon amount to four times Barack Obama’s $400,000.
But it’s the marketplace. Either get in or join the University of Chicago. Don’t try to play the middle, which is what the UI did when John Mackovic left his fourth UI bowl team behind in a move to Texas or let Bill Self slip away for a Kansas job that now is paying roughly $5 million per annum through infinity.
Athletic directors don’t usually reward first-year coaches with new contracts, and that goes double for those picked to finish in the lower regions of the Big Ten.
But Thomas recognized something special here, just like the rest of us. And the second-year AD understands that even with a juicy raise, Groce will battle for recruits with rival coaches making twice what he is.
Pending Board of Trustees approval in May — when Assembly Hall financing will be revealed — Groce will receive a one-year extension through the 2017-18 season and a bump of $200,000, which will bring his annual compensation to $1.6 million.
Thomas couldn’t make a smarter move. Directors around the country have taken notice of Groce and were carefully analyzing his value as the Illini knocked off Colorado in the NCAA tournament and came within an eyelash of upsetting Miami. That 63-59 result was the only loss throughout a 23-13 season in which Illinois had a legitimate late-game chance to win and didn’t.
Groce took former losers and turned them into believers. The Illini salvaged four games on the last shot, which they’ve never done in the modern era.
Groce’s recruiting efforts have been widely lauded, and on Friday night he added a backcourt transfer, Aaron Cosby of Seton Hall. Now he’ll carry a little more prestige into the upcoming showdowns for Tulane’s fifth-year transfer Josh Davis, Chicago Curie center Cliff Alexander and Evansville Bosse guard JaQuan Lyle.
The UI has infrequently been in the running for players ranked among the top 20 in their class.
On the rise
Thomas sees the “arrow pointing up” even if it might not fly very high next season.
After all, the Illini will miss 1,463 of the team’s 2,465 points and 209 of 280 three-pointers. Everything points to an uphill climb next season.
But Groce pulled his first UI squad out of the mud to attain all the respectability that an 8-10 Big Ten finish could expect. His heartfelt locker room comments in the wake of the Miami loss were classic. It was a low-key, carefully worded Martin Luther King effort, in a different way.
Groce is not above coach-speak, which is necessary in press and fan dealing. But his instinctive reactions in the immediate wake of devastating losses to Wisconsin or in the inspiring upset of Indiana were always right on. And you can’t fake those things.
Maybe you still like Brad Stevens better. He took Butler to two NCAA championship games, a remarkable feat. Groce’s Illini whacked the Bulldogs by 17 in November. Or perhaps you got excited when a red-hot Shaka Smart was the flavor of the day. Michigan whacked Smart’s VCU gang by 25 last month. Or maybe you thought Illinois could attract Mark Few from Gonzaga. Well, the Illini put the Zags on their knees on their own home court.
Nobody’s perfect. Groce has some difficult days ahead. Even as key Big Ten players turn pro — next up, Trey Burke — nearly everybody in the conference has more talent returning. It should be obvious how badly Illinois needs help at center and point guard by all the bushes Groce is shaking.
But here’s the final word. Let’s keep this guy. There are only a few Selfs and Vic Koennings and coaches of that stripe. There’s a little luck involved when one falls your way. Tie a rope around him, even if the rope gets more expensive every year.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.