The End of The John Groce Era began in earnest on New Year’s Eve eve afternoon, when Groce betrayed a thorough misunderstanding of his dire situation. Bret Beherns tossed a softball which Groce perceived as a curve. How can the coach reassure a fanbase distraught by a 25-point loss?
Groce blanched at the question, then ridiculed it. An hour later, his reaction was viral & universally panned.
John, what do you want to tell fans concerned about a 13-0 start at IND?
Groce: “What kind of question is that Craig? Goodness gracious.” pic.twitter.com/WLjMCSbSuI
— Craig Choate (@craigwchoate) January 7, 2017
As a group and as individuals, we talked about the Behrens Moment after Groce left the room. I told Bret it was a perfectly fine question. Scott Richey wondered whether the moment would be excised from the Official Upload (it wasn’t, but you couldn’t hear the question either, which is unfair to Bret … this is why you should always watch the Illini Report version; you get the audio).
I wondered aloud whether Groce lives in a Rebounders’ Club bubble, and honestly doesn’t know that Illinois basketball once sold a lot of tickets, at non-fire sale prices, and had more than 200 retirees attending its every move. Has he truly not heard the criticism? If not, that would be extraordinarily Todd Lickliterish of him.
Should we tell him that it’s not just the 25-point loss? Should we tell him that he’s never had a winning conference record at Illinois, and people have begun to notice?
Bret conjectured that Groce must, by the necessity of high-profile coaching gigs, be tuned out from the word on the street. Derek Piper and I agreed that the assistants seem to have a nose to the ground that Head Coaches don’t.
An hour earlier, as the media gathered for player interviews at Ubben, Groce’s future was already the subject of speculation. TV, radio, newspaper and web reporters huddled by the trophy cases, which display championship hardware from zero seasons of the Groce Administration.
One asked who’d be the Missouri coach next year? Another followed up with the same question, but referring to Illinois.
I don’t actually remember who said what. I was trying to get my A/V gear up and running, and was experiencing technical difficulties. I was also sleep-deprived, and obsessed with the thought that the next Mizzou coach would be crazy not to court/hire Jamall Walker (admittedly assuming that the next Mizzou coach is not Jamall Walker).
The tone of that conversation continued as everyone moved across the street, where a media meal (chicken & cheese quesadillas with all the trimmings plus a mixed green salad with sliced cucumber and carrot shavings, and cookies) was served in the State Farm Center’s bowels.
It carried up the two flights of stairs to the media work room, where bright lighting, microphones and a mult box make the job of capturing coaches comments a little easier. With only a cameraman representing DIA staff, and no SIDs in the room, the conversation turned to outright complaint. I was a bystander and witness. I didn’t say a thing during Groce’s subsequent presser, either.
Two points that came across were that Groce is — if not difficult to work with — than at least more difficult to work with than Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber. It was mostly to do with scheduling and punctuality.
At eight minutes past the bottom of the hour, Groce entered the media work room for his 12:30 press conference.
Many media outlets rely on deadlines. Timeliness is important to these people.
Tom Crean is considered, by far and almost unanimously, the very worst B1G coach in this regard. John Groce is #2. Crean has three major conference championships and a Final Four on his résumé. Groce led a team to a 3rd place finish in the MAC’s eastern division, twice.
Sports reporters frame & characterize their subjects for the public. They guide public perception. Why would you want to irritate them?
The business model of local newspapers, commercial radio and fan-oriented websites relies on public enthusiasm for local sports. If you’ve already eviscerated their cash cow, why would you dare to irritate them?
Illini sports sells newspapers. Or, as we’ve learned these last ten years; it doesn’t. We’ll always have 16,618, but we’ll never again have 16,618.
Whether Josh Whitman or Robert Jones gives a damn about basketball; Scout.com still wants to make money. So does the News-Gazette.
But if nobody wants to read about the team you cover, it’s hard to sell subscriptions.
If you can’t sell newspapers by writing about a winning team, you turn to the next hot topic that spurs reader interest: the coaching search. Rush Limbaugh did well when Democrats controlled the White House. Jon Stewart did well under Republican rule. We’d prefer to read about our universal and ultimate glory. But short of that outcome, we’ll rally around those willing to persecute our tormentors.
Through his tone-deaf reaction that Friday afternoon, John Groce made it a little easier for everyone to turn the page on him, and start talking frankly about his successor. He took the gloves off.
It looked like things might get messy from then on out. But snarky Groce retreated into his shell, and cheery Groce returned. We haven’t seen a recurrence.
After the second Penn State beatdown, which insured that Groce would finish 5-of-5 seasons without a winning conference record, the same group of regulars convened in the media room to do our thing.
“I know you guys don’t know what to write any more,” I told a couple of newspaper people. The ongoing joke is that they’ve run out of things to say, because every game is the same. “But I think we’ve run out of questions to ask. So I’m counting on you guys to come up with something. That’s your job.”
“Do you have a Realtor?” posited one writer, who shall remain nameless.
Maybe Whitman will learn that he can’t find a fantastic replacement, and choose not to make a change this off-season. So far, the names being bandied about are uninspiring or implausible. Illini fans, like all fans, value their program more than neutral observers. They think rebuilding a thoroughly broken, irrelvant program will appeal to the top five names on every other school’s list of prospective hires.
Tomorrow, I’ll publish my list. It might have some of those same names on it, but only in passing, or to emphasize that they’re not coming through that door.
Groce still enjoys a lot of support with people who matter. He’s not a sociopath.
He’s a guy who’ll eschew winning in favor of teaching basketball players to be better people and, eventually, better players — what his predecessor called “coaching not to lose.”
That appeals to those concerned with the educational mission of the university.