Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas addressed an assembled group of fans, players and media at the Assembly Hall Thursday to introduce John Groce as the new basketball coach.
"This is an exciting day for the University of Illinois basketball program. Coach Groce certainly has a tremendous record of success. He's an outstanding recruiter. If you look, he's spent almost his whole basketball life in the Midwest and is part of the Big 10 fabric. He's had great mentors; he's worked side-by-side with some of the great coaches in the country."
Groce led Ohio University to the NCAA Sweet 16 this spring and impressed many along the way. His background includes work with a number of outstanding college basketball coaches, his recruiting is praised in many sectors, and he's considered a player-friendly coach.
He gained points with the fans by invoking the memory of the 1988-89 Flying Illini and the great 2004-05 Illini team. He wants to continue the legacy of quality established at Illinois.
"I think this place has tremendous potential. You've had a lot of great players and great coaches here. You study the history of Illinois basketball and what they've accomplished, it's a really special place. If I didn't believe it could happen, I wouldn't be standing up here.
"I think the 'consistency over greatness' line that Pat Riley uses, is what we're all looking for. That's what we want to be about. We want to be a team of excellence in our conference."
Groce spoke eloquently without notes and answered all questions with great detail. His formal comments can be found on video all over the Internet. Afterward, he spoke informally with members of the media. A portion of that question and answer session follows:
Question: What have these past few days been like for you?
Answer: "It's been a whirlwind, but it's been fun. We're excited that it ends up resulting in a press conference today and be a part of the University of Illinois family. My wife will tell you I haven't slept a whole lot; I don't do much anyway. I haven't eaten a whole lot. It was a crazy period of time, it was like bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. I'm thrilled to be here."
Q: Has the Big Ten always been your dream?
A: "For me growing up, it was all we watched in my household. That was all we paid attention to. It was Big Ten, Big Ten in our family. It is from that standpoint a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it is a dream job. It's almost surreal; it's happened so fast. It's very exciting."
Q: Why Illinois?
A: "First of all, it's in the Midwest. It's in an area where I feel comfortable recruiting. Most importantly, it's an area where I feel comfortable living. My wife and two kids are really going to enjoy the community. My wife actually applied at Illinois out of high school. She had studied and researched it and knew a little bit about the Champaign-Urbana community, and I did as well being a Midwest guy. That was the most important thing.
"And then obviously from a basketball perspective, you look at it and start to get excited. You see how close it is to Chicago, how close it is to Indianapolis, how close it is to St. Louis. We've had great success there recruiting players and will continue to tap into those resources and those relationships that we have.
"There are just so many pluses. The only con is leaving the kids back in Ohio. I love those kids like they're family."
Q: How would you define "player's coach."
A: "I would hope that's a compliment. If you talk to the players we've coached, I think it's important to develop a connection with them. I think a lot of that is centered around caring about them more than just as players who can throw the orange ball through the hoop. Make sure they feel that in a genuine way.
"Having relationships with every guy on our team is important to me. You've got to know what motivates kids both on and off the court. As a leader and coach, that's our responsibility."
Q: Are you ready for the challenges of coaching in the Big 10?
A: "Obviously, it's a war. Every night is gonna be a challenge. It's gonna be a dogfight every night. I think our league is even better now than when I was coaching in it. I think some programs have really grown, and it's great for the league. It makes it fun and exciting."
Q: Are you glad you got that dirty secret about being a Hoosier out of your system?
A: "It's interesting because we watched a lot of Big Ten basketball growing up. My grandmother is passed; I wish you could be here today. She was an important part of my life. Growing up, she lived with us from the time I was 12. I didn't have any choice; that's who she rooted for, and whatever grandma says goes.
"If she were here now, she'd be rooting like crazy for the Orange. She was a Bears fan, she loved the Bears."
Q: What concerns do you have about the Illinois program?
A: "I didn't have a lot of concerns, to be honest with you. The biggest thing, the word that kept ringing in my head was 'potential.' This place has a lot of potential. I'm excited about the future renovations of this place from a facility perspective. I was excited to hear that the practice facility is on the docket as well.
"There is a mindset and mentality, which is all you ask, that says we want to get better and improve. As long as everybody in the organization is believing in that on a daily basis, you have a chance to do that. That's what I'm excited about and meeting the people that I have so far."
Q: Have you always wanted to be a college coach?
A: "You read those USA today statistics about people changing majors, changing career paths. From the time I was 12, I wanted to coach. I coached an AAU team while I was in college and had a blast. I've always enjoyed it.
"I've enjoyed putting teams together and working with kids, seeing them grow and get better. I look forward to working with kids over a period of time and watching them grow, get better and improve as a person and a student and a player."
Q: What coaches have had the most influence in your coaching career?
A: "I'm the luckiest guy in the world. My high school coach was Todd Lickliter, a tremendous teacher. He's one of the best I've ever been around in terms of teaching the game. My college coach was Paul Patterson, who is as good as it gets in terms of practice planning and organizing. I worked for Herb Sendek, who has two major degrees from Carnegie-Mellon and is extremely bright. I learned a lot about recruiting from him.
"I worked with Sean Miller, I worked with Thad Matta, I worked with Brad Stevens. I don't know if I've really worked for, played with or worked for someone who didn't add value to my career or my family in some way, shape or form."
Q: Is it true you place great importance on statistics?
A: "I use a lot of statistics in my scouting. That goes back to me being a math teacher. The guys will sell you I say all the time, 'You get what you measure.' So we utilize those stats a lot in preparations, and in analyzing our own team."
Q: How would you describe your style of play?
A: "The best word we could use to describe it is 'attack'. We're like the boxer who tries to knock someone out in each of the 10 four-minute rounds. And then come back after the media timeout and swing again. On the defensive end, we play that way, and on the offensive end, we play as fast as we can. I've had great fortune in the past to have had great depth to do that, especially the last two years.
"In terms of this team, I haven't had a chance to watch them on film yet. I saw them play a couple times on TV just in passing. I am familiar with a lot of the players because most of them are from the Midwest. So that helps a little bit, but I'm not going to prejudge.
"I'm gonna start working with them...I'm looking forward to that. We're going to figure out the best style in year one that fits them and gives them the best chance to be successful. I think adaptability is really important.
"I found out the best thing in coaching is to be yourself. For me, I'm aggressive, attack, energy guy, so I want to play that way. Offensively, that's where our up-tempo approach comes from. And you know what? Two of the four years I was at Ohio, we didn't play as fast as I wanted to play. We didn't have the depth.
"So I'm willing to adapt. You can't be stubborn; if you do that, sometimes it doesn't give you a chance to be as successful as you need to be.
"But in an ideal world, we'd like to push it. And then on defense, we'd like to get into you a little bit. Attack you and make it difficult for you. Protect the paint and those different things that are important to winning. I think 'attack' is the best way to describe our play."
Q: How was your meeting with the players today?
A: "We had some fun in the meeting, if you call it that. I had a chance to talk to some of the guys. I shared my vision with them. But most importantly, I told them it's their program. It's a player's program.
"I'm a big relationship guy and wish to get to know each and every one of them. We are going to work diligently to do that starting today. I told them my commitment to them is going to be to help them grow as individuals, students and players on a daily basis. When I wake up every day, that's what makes me tick.
"So we talked a little bit about that. There was some laughter in there. I know they've gone through an awful lot. I'm really excited to get to know them better."
Q: What do you think will be your biggest obstacle this coming season?
A: "I'm not sure yet. I'm a glass half-full guy. That's just kind of been my approach, so we look at obstacles as opportunities. To get better, to grow. There will be some obstacles.
"I shared with them today that life is 70% stormy and 30% smooth. How you deal with both determines how successful you are in life. So we'll figure out what's stormy and what's smooth and work really hard to adapt so we can be successful both on and off the court."
Q: How do you respond to your skeptics?
A: "There's always skeptics in everything in life. That's part of that stormy deal that I just mentioned to you. If you don't have thick skin in this profession, you're in trouble. You can't please everybody. You have to do what's right.
"I really believe in three things: one is integrity, two is commitment and three is unity. We are going to stick by those three things and coach our guys to have those same core values on a daily basis. There's going to be skeptics, that's reality. It's all in how you deal with them."
Q: Could you fill us in on your last few days?
A: "We played the tournament Friday. We got back into Athens on Saturday and had a chance to decompress a little bit. Sunday I was reached. Monday I was interviewed. Tuesday/Wednesday were negotiations. Wednesday offered… Wednesday took."
Q: What type of players do you prefer for your system?
A: "Obviously, we're going to try to get the very best players that we possibly can. Illinois guys. First of all, they have shown me they have a desire to get a college degree. Work ethic, toughness. And there are things aside from those generalities that are specific for the positions that we're looking for.
"Because we play fast, athleticism is important, length is important. I think motor is important, playing with energy is important for us how we play. We like to attack the paint, whether that's with a passer or a great post player, guys who can take the ball and put it in the bank. We utilize the three point shot in our offense.
"Defensively, we like to force turnovers with our athleticism and length. We like a chance to get easy baskets at the other end.
"The one thing about us is, we have a real plan about who we are recruiting and why. I'll always ask the staff, 'Is that an Illinois guy?' They've got to be able to tell me, or in my own observation, why or why not they fit those criteria. That's important. So we want to make sure that Illinois guys are on the Illinois team."
Q: Do you have any concerns about recruiting Chicago, and will that be part of your effort in the future?
A: "I think it needs to be a part for sure. It would be foolish not to be. It's 2 1/2 hours from here, straight up the interstate. There's a lot of really good coaches and really good people in high school and AAU basketball there. Sometimes it maybe gets a bad rap a little bit.
"But we've got some great relationships there. There's a high level of quality basketball played, as well as basketball players there. We are looking forward to continuing the relationships that we have with those people up there as well is building some new ones. I'm excited about the challenge. We want it to be part of our recruiting efforts moving forward.
Q: How do you envision getting your name out among the coaches in the Chicago area.
A: "We have some previously established relationships that are going to be important, more than perhaps what people think. Chicago is rich in talent and has real good coaching. There's a lot of people in that city that care about those kids that we're going to have to connect with.
"I'm looking forward to getting to know those guys better than what we do. I understand how important that area is. I think it's great that Chicago is in our state. That's excellent. We've got to make sure we do the very best job of taking advantage of that and making sure that the Illinois brand is loud and clear in the city of Chicago."
Q: How much balance will you have recruiting between Chicago and the other ties you have?
A: "Sometimes, we lose sight of the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room in the patience to create a consistent standard of excellence that gives us a chance to compete for championships. When you do that, you start to become a player on the national stage.
"Our job is to find Illinois guys to play at Illinois. Obviously Chicago is important; there's no doubt about that. No one is going to say otherwise. But I also think St. Louis is important. Indianapolis, with the ties we have there, is important. Some of the other cities and towns in Illinois are important.
"And then there will be guys we recruit outside that breadbasket: adjacent states. We're going to try to put our roster together with as many Illinois guys as we can to give us the best chance to be competitive."
Q: Will your attacking style help with recruiting kids?
A: "You sure hope so. I think kids want to attack; they want to be aggressive. I think a lot of times being aggressive is really a key ingredient in good basketball. You don't want them over-thinking.
"There's a balance there where you want to take great shots, but sometimes with your better or best players, they may take some that aren't. When you let them have more freedom, 80 to 90% of the time they make you look good. And then about 10 to 20% of the time, they make you look like you don't know what you're doing.
"But you've got to figure out that balance as a coach, and what you're comfortable with. I just prefer our guys being in attack mode for 40 minutes."
Q: Can you break the trend of no Indiana recruits at Illinois?
A: "I don't know, but we're going to try. The thing is, if we can identify an Illinois guy, regardless of where they're from, (we're going to recruit him). Indiana is an area where we have some relationships. Hopefully we can crack that nut."
Q: What makes you a good recruiter?
A: "I'm flattered you would say that. There are a lot of good recruiters out there. You'd have to ask parents and kids. So I hope they would say that when he comes in and meet with us, he has integrity, passion and is really committed to what he's doing. That's who I am at my core."
Q: The state of Illinois is loaded with 2013 prospects, but it is a quick turnaround for you. How concerned are you about recruiting those kids?
A: "You can't control how quick the turnaround is. But we're going to work really, really hard to let those kids know about Illinois basketball, about what we're trying to build, and how they can be a special part of it.
"Those guys are really important, especially the kids in our state. As important as anything except the guys we have already on our team. The guys who are on your team are always the most important guys."
Q: Chicago Simeon coach Robert Smith is open to being an assistant coach here. Are you open to hiring a high school coach as an assistant?
A: "I'm open to putting the best staff together that we can possibly put together. I'm gonna turn over every stone. We owe that for these kids, we owe that to the community, we owe that to the program. We're going to do our due diligence there.
"I'm obviously familiar with him. He's done a terrific job at Simeon High School. He's had a lot of talent, and he develops that talent. He's done a heckuva job coaching those kids. I've got a lot of respect for Rob."
Q: What do you know about Jerrance Howard?
A: "One of my assistants knows him better than I do. Obviously, he's a tremendous recruiter and coach, and a really good person. I'm looking forward to getting to know him myself.
"Our paths have crossed a little bit, and I've always had great respect for him and his recruiting. I'm looking forward to meeting with him today and getting a feel for him and getting to know him better.
"There will be some guys coming here with me from Ohio. That's in flux a little bit right now. We're going to try to do that as quickly as we can.
"But at the same time, we want to make sure we have what I call 'the right people on the bus.' So we are not going to be so quick that we make a rash decision there. I think people make the place, and people make the basketball program and the basketball staff.
"So I want to make sure we put together the best collection of coaches together. We owe that to these kids. The guys that are going to be on that bus have got to be guys that are teachers first and foremost to help them grow as people, students and players. That's the type of staff we're looking for."
Q: Will you consider some of your present staff to join you at Illinois?
A: "I'm very blessed. I have some guys at Ohio who are a big part of what we were doing. Jamall Walker recruited D.J. Cooper out of Chicago and has done a good job of recruiting that area.
"And then Ramon Williams was at DePaul. He knows a lot of people in the city, a lot of coaches in the Catholic League. It just happens I've got two guys on my staff who are already entrenched there and have some relationships there, which is a good thing.
"That's still in flux because I don't know what's going to happen back in Ohio. And I want to get a chance to talk to each one of those guys and get an idea what they want. What they're looking for.
"So I'm leaving it completely wide open at this point. I do feel a responsibility to make sure they're plugged in somewhere they fit. We'll work diligently to make sure that happens."
Q: Have you seen Meyers Leonard play?
A: "I've seen him some. I'm looking forward to diagnosing him a little more and meeting him, see what he thinks. And get some analysis from some people who are credible. We'll do all that and try to help him as best we can in making a decision that's good for him and his family."
Q: How important was the length of the contract to you?
A: "Anyone who says the length of the contract isn't important is lying to you. But I have a lot of confidence in what we're doing. I started with that same number of year contract at Ohio, and that worked out okay.
"We're going to attack every day with the whole concept of trying to get better and improve. That's who I am regardless of how long the contract is. I leave all those things to my attorney, to be honest with you."