CHAMPAIGN — Almost everywhere he goes — like at Tuesday’s women’s basketball game at the State Farm Center — Roger Powell is recognized for what he did at Illinois, most notably his role on the 2004-05 team that reached the national championship game.
“That was a special time with that group of guys,” he said.
Now an assistant coach with the Valparaiso men’s program, Powell will be back at the State Farm Center, where he’ll be warmly received tonight for the Crusaders’ game with the Illini (6:30 p.m., BTN).
But basketball wasn’t the most important aspect of his time on the UI campus from 2001 to ’05.
It was at Illinois where Powell discovered his faith and committed his life to God. Nearly nine years after that run to the Final Four, “The Reverend” is still incorporating faith into his daily routine.
“I became a Christian during my junior year in college and a lot of things started to develop and change for me,” he said.
During the special season of 2004-05 — when Illinois started 29-0 and dominated the No. 1 spot in the national rankings — Powell embraced the Reverend nickname and used the exposure as an opportunity to share his faith.
He continues to share his message today as an assistant coach on Bryce Drew’s staff.
“It’s the reason I do everything I do. The reason I’m coaching now is to use my experience to build young men,” Powell said. “It affects the way I raise my family, the way I interact with my wife (Tara). Our church and the faith is the foundation of everything I do.”
At 30 years old, he could still be playing professionally. The 6-foot-6 forward spent time in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and the Bulls before playing four years in Europe. But he wanted to share his experiences with young men, and he’s fulfilling that wish at Valparaiso.
That’s what is important to him, not moving on to a marquee job.
“I’m more focused on just being the best at where I am,” he said. “I want to help Valpo win, get to the (NCAA) tournament and win games in the tournament. I want to try to win Horizon League championships like we have the last two years. My goals are more short-term and just taking Valpo and building on the success the program has had in the past.”
Powell has developed into a star on Drew’s staff. One publication named him the top recruiting assistant coach in the Horizon League. During his two years on the bench, the Crusaders are 50-20 with two conference championships and an NCAA tournament appearance.
“I’ve learned so much. The biggest thing I’ve learned is I love what I’m doing. When you find something you love doing, it’s fun going to work every day,” he said. “I really enjoy it. I work for a great university; Valparaiso is a great place. I work for a great head coach; Bryce Drew is great, and having his dad (former Valpo coach Homer Drew) as a mentor for us has been awesome.”
The last time Illinois and the Crusaders hooked up on the court — Dec. 19, 2004 — Powell scored 14 points to help the top-ranked Illini cruise to a 37-point win. He was a senior then. He is a Crusader now.
“Roger certainly has a great appreciation for what Illinois did for him long-term. He really loves the place,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Make no mistake (tonight) he’ll be pulling for Valpo.”
Powell played for Bill Self and Bruce Weber at Illinois. He’s gotten to know Groce on the recruiting trail and has made summer visits to campus to visit with the Illinois coaching staff.
When he’s not knee-deep in scouting reports, Powell is keeping tabs on the Illini.
“I’ll continue to do that,” Powell said. “Coach Groce is a great guy. I enjoy my interactions with him, and it’s been fun getting to know him.”
Powell keeps tabs on his former Illinois teammates, too.
“I’ll send the guys an email or text every once in a while just to check in,” he said. “Those relationships are the best part.”
Tara will be in attendance tonight along with the couple’s daughter, Bria. And many of Powell’s friends from Illinois will be in attendance, too.
“I think they may root for me this game, but after that they’ll switch back to Illinois,” he said.
Hoping for an Illinois loss tonight isn’t easy for Powell.
“I have one thing in mind and that’s to try to get a win. It’s weird because this is a program and a school I love,” he said.