courtesy Akron athletics

Q&A John Groce on Illinois tenure: 'I don't have any regrets'

John Groce talked with Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner about his new head coaching job at Akron and reflects on his five-year tenure at Illinois

John, what have your emotions been like the past couple weeks? I can't imagine the roller coaster of it not working out the way you wanted and then earning a new opportunity. What have the last couple weeks been like for you?

John Groce: "Well, obviously, your emotions are all over the place. But I think once you get the chance to step away from it, my perspective is a lot different. I felt like we were five minutes away from victory with the No. 1 class (in the Big Ten) coming in at that time, with some other things happening in recruiting and who we have back. My perspective is different on it. As you know, Jeremy,  from covering us, I'm a glass half-full guy, and I really believe that. For me though, once you get through the fact of, 'Hey, you have to move on,' then your emotions do sway from time to time. But the one thing I kept telling to myself is we're going to use this experience to make us better and make sure that we find a great place for my family and a place where we can impact community and the student-athletes. We obviously had a great chance to do that over the five years at Illinois. We feel very good about the opportunity to do that at Akron."

We heard you had other coaching opportunities. Why was the head coaching position at Akron the right fit?

Groce: "I think there were a couple things I was really looking for. A lot of it, once you've been a head coach for nine years, you hear different cliches like, 'Alignment is important.' I certainly felt that way going into the interview process at Ohio and at Illinois. But obviously we went through some challenging things over the five years when it came to the alignment piece during my time. So it was one thing I was really focused in on to make sure there was a clear vision that there was shared by the athletic director, the president, the other administrative people I came into contact with during the interview process. I asked a lot of questions, probably more so than I even had during my previous two job interviews that led to Ohio and Illinois. I thought that was really important. That alignment piece where the vision is the same and where you understand what those expectations are that the commitment and the investment match that. I felt very strongly after going through the process with Akron that those things were in place.

"And then, obviously their recent success. Four MAC championships in the last six years. Three NCAA tournament  appearances in the last nine years. I have such great respect and admiration for Keith Dambrot, the previous coach there, and Bob Huggins (Akron coach from 1984-89) and what those guys built as well as the players that played on those teams when I was at Ohio and then even before that and after. There is a culture there where there's some toughness and where guys have an expectation to win. That was important as well."

John, I've always said that you didn't take over a very good situation at Illinois, especially with the unbalanced roster. At Akron, you are taking over a program with success. How big of a difference is that going to be taking over a program that's had recent success?

Groce: "No question, Jeremy, it is different. I always look at the situation when you're sizing up a potential opportunity. I really kind of put them in four categories. Is it a start up? Is it a turnaround? Is it a realignment? Is it a sustaining or building on success situation? Obviously with Akron, it's clearly the latter. What's interesting ... is you know what happens with transfers this time of year. So for me, right now, my first order of business as you can imagine when I got to campus was making sure that I meet with the current guys who are on the team. We had a team meeting and meeting with them one-on-one and finding out exactly who's coming back. That's a big deal because regardless of what happened last year -- they had 27 wins, they won the MAC championship -- you know as well as I do that most of this is determined by the health of your players, the talent and the fit that your players might be at a particular place. So for me to really answer that question of what it's going to look like heading into next year is probably too early to tell until I have a full grasp of who is going to be on the roster."

You're familiar with the MAC and that area. What will be the biggest difference between coaching at Illinois and Akron?

Groce: "I'll take away a few things from (Illinois). It's interesting. I shared that in the interview. I even told the players here, 'Fellas, I feel like you've gotten better year to year, whether that's in the weight room, whether that's on the court, whether that's in class, academically.' It felt like our culture finally really got to the point here when we got to the end where it was really good academically with what guys were doing, really good with some off-the-court stuff we'd been through. It finally got to the point where I really felt like that was really good. You've got to get a pulse for that, and we'll obviously do that and where we're at at Akron. Those kids are used to winning. Back to what I was originally saying, I told those kids that I fully expect to a better coach each year just like I expect you to be a better player. I think the experience I had at Ohio and certainly the five years at Illinois have made me a different person. It made me a different coach -- in a good way. Those experiences I think have really helped me. I'll rely on those experiences a lot. Not that every situation's identical, but you feel like you're better off because of that experience."

John, I know you're not one to live in the past. But as you go through this, I imagine you've done a lot of reflecting about yourself as a coach. Have you done that and what have you learned? Is there anything you look at and say, 'I could get better at that'?

Groce: "Well, as I said in the press conference, I think you can nitpick that. Every coach can nitpick that. I don't care who the coach is. I think when we all watch tape after a game we're like, 'Well, maybe we should've run this on this particular possession.' Or, 'Maybe we should've changed defense here.' It's easy to say that after. Certainly we approached it every day and we attacked it. I always told them, 'The pain of discipline isn't nearly as tough as the pain of regret.' I really don't have any (regrets). I certainly have some things that maybe a decision here in recruiting or a decision here with the schedule or a decision here. But I'll be honest with you, the bulk of what I look back on was quite honestly a lot of things that were out of our control. You mentioned the roster and what it looked like when we got in or some of the things that were going on on campus or injuries. There's certainly some other things that we'd like to do differently. But at the end of the day when you add all of those things into one melting pot, I think there were some challenges, for sure. But you know me, Jeremy, I love challenges. I don't have any regrets. I've learned a lot throughout the experience. I'm grateful to have the five years (at Illinois) and the four years at Ohio and to have all the places and coaches I've worked for and players I've had a chance to coach. I feel really blessed. I know (my wife) Allison does as well to have just have had a great five years in the Champaign community."

John, I think you could add some interesting perspective here. The last two coaches at Illinois have been dismissed but received other jobs, so you obviously know a little bit about coaching. What are the unique challenges here of the University of Illinois? What do they need to do to be successful?

Groce: "Well, obviously that'll be a conversation I have with Brad (Underwood). He reached out, and I'll connect with him because I do care about the players. I care about this place, as I said at the press conference. I do want Illinois to do well. There are different things that you have to tackle on a daily basis, but you could say that about every job. There's always, my dad used to say, pluses and minuses to every situation. I think a lot of it is the attitude that you have. Understanding what those expectations are and then try to tackle them, roll up your sleeves every day and then worrying about what you can control. That's a big thing I'm certain I'll share with him because there are some things that you just can't. I think people that don't follow it as closely or don't know it as well think you can control it, when in reality that isn't the case at all. But the things you can control certainly are your effort, your organization, your execution of a plan, your vision, your attitude every day towards that, how you handle what comes at you. I think that's really, really important -- not only at the Illinois job but any job, to be honest."

John, how do you hope you're remembered here in Champaign?

Groce: "Well, I hope ... I know this. I know the community and the university certainly made our family better. We're just so thankful for that. By no means, we talked about what happened as a family. We're not going to be bitter. We're going to be better because of this and be grateful. I just hope in some small way over the five years that our family -- which includes Allison and my three kids -- were able to touch at least a few people here and there, and most importantly our players. Hopefully, they learned -- especially with everything they went through -- they learned, and that's why I was proud of them, they learned how to fight. They fight. Today, in our society, kids especially at that age have a tendency in a fight-or-flight syndrome to flight and leave. When things get uncomfortable, when there's adversity, when your back's against the wall, when you have naysayers out there and doubters and people who think they have this whole thing figured out that have no idea what's going on behind the scenes. When those situations occur, you put your hands up and you fight. You fight your way through it. You stay positive. You stay together. You don't base your disposition and your attitude on circumstances. The only thing we could do was respond to those. I think our guys, especially at the end of the year, you saw it. They played that way. We had other teams played that way. In fact, I think we played some of our best basketball when we were cornered. I think that says a lot about the character of the kids. So hopefully in some small way we taught them something about that.

"We had a chance most importantly to impact community. Maybe there's a few people here and there that feel like they were better because they had a chance to meet Allison Groce and my three kids. That's my hope. We hope that's the legacy we left. We'll be following everything back there closely as we leave and depart town. We appreciate your guys as well and wish you nothing but the best."


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