CHAMPAIGN — Despite the fact that his team has lost nine of its last 10 games, Illinois coach John Groce entered Friday’s news conference to preview tonight’s game against Ohio State (7 p.m., BTN) with his traditional upbeat demeanor.
Dressed in an orange Illinois pullover, Starbucks in hand, Groce entered the room greeting sports information director Kent Brown with his projectable voice “What’s up, Kent? Fresh haircut?”
Positive, energetic, that’s who Groce is and it’s not changing because the losses have piled up at a rate similar to the snow here in central Illinois this winter.
After the losses, the refrain remains the same from Illini players when asked how they’re maintaining through the tough times, with almost all of them answering with one word: “Coach.”
Though he might not show it outwardly, the losses have weighed some on Groce, and the same guys who look to him for positive energy are the ones who keep him in good spirits.
“The effort that they continue to give, the way they’ve fought, the fact that they come with their hard hat on every day, that motivates me,” Groce said. “The way they’ve handled themselves, the way they’ve continued to play really hard, that probably inspires me more than anything.”
The current Illini players are the driving force behind it, but the 42-year-old Groce has an inner circle of supporters — from coaching friends, to family members, including wife Allison, and other friends who help him stay focused on the big picture with regard to building the Illinois program.
“I think that’s really important because it’s hard to do. Human nature, you want to be emotional one way or the other when in reality, like I tell the players, most of the time it’s not as good as it seems and most of the time it’s not as bad as it seems,” Groce said. “You’ve got to stay somewhere in the middle. If we expect them to do that, we’ve got to do that as a staff as well and mirror that.”
Groce’s energy is infectious to those who spend every day with and around him. He says that part of it with the players is non-negotiable. It’s not something he has to negotiate with this group.
“We understand that’s Coach, show him a great deal of respect and show him that we’re all in it together regardless of the outcome,” Tracy Abrams said.
Assistant coach Dustin Ford has been working alongside Groce for all six of his seasons as a head coach. When he comes to work every day whether it’s after reaching the Sweet 16 at Ohio, winning an NCAA tournament game at Illinois last year or the day after the team’s eighth loss in a row, Groce’s attitude is the same.
“John is positive all the time. He knows where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” Ford said. “John’s got a plan for everything. He’s got a plan for how tomorrow’s going to work, how Sunday’s going to work, how Monday’s going to work. He puts a lot of thought into everything he does. He’s consistent with that and that’s how we’re going to get there.”