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Illini basketball

The Grinding

Jamall Walker and Ryan Pedon both know what it’s like to be Geoff Alexander right now. Both are recent Illini SPAHCs (Special Assistant to the Head Coach). Both are current assistant coaches, and both had been assistant coaches before becoming SPAHCs.

They know about the transition from a coaching role. They know how to operate as an advance scout and administrator, and then transition back to a coaching role.

Ryan Pedon, during his time at Illinois

Walker was just pulling up to the Grand Canyon Lopes Basketball offices this morning, on his way to a meeting. He had just enough time to say he was excited about Geoff’s promotion, and wishes him well.

Pedon was happy for Geoff as well. When he heard about the promotion, he dashed off a letter of congratulations to his new B1G rival.

I just wrote him a note the other day and said I was really happy for him. I admire guys who worked their way up in the profession. I’ve always felt like he was one of those guys. Respectful guy. Has a very good reputation.


I know he’s kind of grinded his way through this profession and I appreciate guys like that.

When Brad Underwood announced Alexander’s promotion to assistant coach, he denied that there’d been An Understanding between them. Alexander did not become Special Assistant to the Head Coach with the assurance that he’d get a shot, when an opening cropped up, at his current job.

Jamall Walker (top middle) and Geoff Alexander watch a huddle during the 2017-18 season.

Underwood was a SPAHC as recently as Bob Huggins’s lone year at Kansas State. Like (and occasionally with) Geoff, he’s toiled in obscurity, working his way up through the profession. So you can see why he’d want to give Alexander the chance, and also why he’d demand that Geoff earn that chance.

Are the jobs really that different? The SPAHC job doesn’t pay as much. But you get more time at home, because you’re not responsible for evaluating prospects, and then recruiting them.

Pedon said the SPAHC job is pretty labor intensive, even without the excess travel. But the recruiting assistant is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

I think it is a big change for families. There’s a really dramatic difference. All families & all wives adjust to that differently. But it’s not like you’re going from “9 to 5” to that (always on the road).

I’m sure Geoff was not anywhere close to “9 to 5,” so there is a little bit of an understanding already. But, just the travel, and the amount he’ll not be around, That’ll be fairly different. Especially at certain times of the year, like springtime on weekends, and summertime when you’re chasing 17 and 18 year-olds all over the damn country.

Pedon said the hardest part of the SPAHC job, as you might expect, is learning not to coach. The NCAA allows its member programs just three assistants. If anyone else joins in the coaching duties, whether it’s off-campus recruiting or offering verbal instructions in the practice gym; that’s a violation.

Ryan Pedon (just left of referee Terry Wymer) watches from the sidelines during the Groce Era

Instinctually, it’s the hardest. Not to speak up when you see something.  You have to be aware of what you can and can’t do.

I’m a big believer, not just in this profession, in staying in your lane. I tried to do that, as much as I could, in that role. ‘Cause I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. And I wanted to be there as a resource, and something positive for our program. For my boss, our head coach.

I wanted to give John (Groce) exactly what he wanted out of me.
And sometimes that varies, from coach to coach. Part of my deal was trying to be an extra set of eyes and ears for him, and the rest of the coaches. And help them in their particular areas. But I didn’t necessarily need to, or want to be, the guy that Had All The Answers. That’s not what that role is for.

It’s a delicate balance. That’s just my take on it. So I tried to be aware, and respectful, of what my role was.

The Illinois program should hope that Geoff Alexander’s career mirrors Pedon’s. Their career arcs, to this point, are similar. Both played college ball, but not at the high-major level. Alexander was at Western Illinois, Pedon at College of Wooster. Both got assistant coaching gigs in competitive mid-majors conferences (Missouri Valley and MAC) before accepting the SPAHC job at Illinois.

OhioStateBuckeyes.com

Pedon is now a top candidate for a major head coaching gig, having developed Chris Holtmann’s tOSU program into a perennial B1G contender, via cunning game-planning and unexpectedly good recruiting. If Geoff Alexander can mimic that success, the Illini might keep the next E.J Liddell at home.

Pedon didn’t want to share his scouting report with IlliniReport after the Buckeyes win in Champaign this year, pointing out in the days that followed that the two teams would meet again. But he was happy to offer some observations and encouragement to a man who’ll be chasing those same 17 and 18 year-olds all around the damn country.

He’ll also get to know Geoff Alexander better. Up ’til now, it’s mostly been word of mouth.

(Do you know Geoff?)

Just a little bit. Not on a real personal level. Just having worked with some of the same guys. I’ve known of him for a long time and he’s always seemed like a really good guy to me.

Categories
Illini basketball

The Used Polo Shirt

The “paper class” scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill ended with a whimper. A toothless NCAA recognized that it has no power to impose rigorous academic standards on member institutions. Only accrediting agencies (in this case the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) can judge the credibility of curricula.

UNC came out unscathed. Oddly though, UIUC did not.

Malcolm Hill & Jessica Goerke

“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” was a hollow platitude.

The same praise could be offered for Illini basketball’s former academic counselor, Jessica Goerke. But every member of John Groce’s teams would have meant it sincerely. Coaches too.

Goerke was also among the most fashionable persons on campus. So it’s no surprise that she had an idea about helping with a Fashion Design class.  Two Illini players enrolled in that course during the autumn semester of 2016.  You could probably guess who they were if you follow Illini basketball sartorially, perhaps via Instagram. Mike LaTulip and Kendrick Nunn would be candidates had they been enrolled that semester.

But in fact, it was D.J. Williams and X.  X asked not to be identified in this story.

While UNC’s Tarheels celebrated A.C.C. and national championships, while Tarheel (non-)student-athletes accepted unearned degrees; athletes at other universities (like this one here in Urbana-Champaign) faced heightened scrutiny from their own compliance departments, as if academics were the province of the NCAA.

In helping X with his fashion class, Goerke earned a formal reprimand. An investigation concluded that she’d done her job correctly, not exceeding the appropriate level of assistance an academic counselor is expected to provide.

Here’s the official report:

In short, Goerke gave X a used shirt that was otherwise on its way to Goodwill. She gave him the shirt not to wear or sell, but for use in a class assignment.  And although X received an entire education, books, computers, unlimited meals, a high-end apartment complex with its own pool, gym & beach volleyball court, and reasonable travel expenses gratis and well within NCAA restrictions; that used shirt was deemed an impermissible benefit.

X was required to pay for it.

But because the shirt had no traceable owner, and was essentially destroyed in pursuit & completion of the academic assignment for which it was offered, X had to pay not for the shirt itself, but for the idea of the shirt. For the same reasons, there was no one to whom X could directly pay for the idea of the shirt. Instead, U of I compliance decided X could pay the value of the shirt to a charity of his choice, which is standard practice in rectifying bullshit NCAA violations.

X says he can’t remember who chose the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but that’s where the money went. He paid $20.

Those of you who frequent thrift stores will immediately recognize that $20 is an outrageous overestimation of retail value, for anything.

Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jessica Goerke, Jaylon Tate, Alex Austin

The facts emerged during a normal debriefing with Goerke’s supervisor, Marlon Dechausay.  That is, Goerke sat in Dechausay’s office and described her on-job activities for the week, and the academic progress of student-athletes assigned to her care.

Dechausay was two months into the job of Associate Director of Athletics/Academic Services. When he heard the story of the polo shirt, he wondered whether an impermissible benefit had been conferred. He reported his findings to Benjy Wilber, himself two months on the job as Director of Compliance.

If this all seems far-fetched, keep in mind the reason X didn’t want to be named in this story: The new staffers weren’t looking for impermissible benefits. They were looking for academic cheating.  It wasn’t that the shirt had value. They were investigating whether Illini players were doing their own classwork.

But, as with the NCAA’s Lou Henson-era investigation, the investigators found something. And since those Lou Henson-era investigations, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has been proactive about self-reports.

Jessica Goerke as artist Bob Ross, Halloween 2016. Leron Black as Leron Black.

Ironically, the emphasis on academic improprieties shifted focus from day-to-day compliance monitoring. The final compendium on Groce-era violations wouldn’t fill a respectable pamphlet.

That’s odd, because Team Groce exhibited just as many instances of the same secondary-level infraction that Bruce Weber’s administration most frequently violated, the “too many coaches” rule. That rule cost Special Assistant to the Head Coach Gary Nottingham a day’s pay (his penalty for the final iteration of that infraction).

Yet not a single self-report was ever processed by U of I Compliance for the Groce years.

For the first four of those years, Ryan Squire was head of Compliance. I asked for his opinion on the disparity.

Eventually, Gary Nottingham just stopped coming down to the court.

My observation is that it was just a difference in the ways that the two staffs were assembled and operated. Gary Nottingham was a lifelong coach who was put in a noncoaching role and had trouble keeping himself from coaching in the heat of the games despite our instructions and warnings.

On Coach Groce’s staff, his noncoaching staff were not people who wanted to be coaches so they were able to avoid any instances where they provided instruction to student-athletes during the games. You may have been familiar with Mark Morris, his operations person, and Darren Hertz, his special assistant. Both of them came from noncoaching backgrounds so it was easier for them to avoid these kinds of violations.

In my observation, Brandon Miller, Groce’s first SATTHC, did not engage in coaching activities during games.

Mark Morris (Director of Basketball Operations) did violate the rule once. That is, I have only one picture of Morris standing up, cupping his hands around his mouth, and hollering something at the game’s participants. I took him aside at Ubben the following week and explained the situation.

“I’m sure you were just yelling at the referee,” I told him. “But you want to avoid that kind of behavior. Someone might conclude that you were coaching.”

It never happened again.

I didn’t see Ryan Pedon engage in coaching during his time as SATTHC. But then Darren Hertz arrived. I don’t recall anything from his first year on the job, so maybe Ryan Squire’s observation was accurate.

And then …

So it would appear that U of I Compliance was distracted.

Now that the UNC investigation has (inconclusively) concluded, perhaps things will return to normal. Brad Underwood’s SATTHC Geoff Alexander would be wise to take a page from Nottingham’s revised playbook, and simply not speak to players during practices and games.

The unspoken story of the DIA’s investigation of X  is that Jessica Goerke didn’t provide impermissible academic assistance. Nevertheless, she received a reprimand.

Goerke is no longer with the program. In September, she left Illinois to become Assistant Athletic Director/Academic Support at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

But as X would tell you — if he trusted you and hadn’t been hounded about this very issue by the same people who were ostensibly looking out for his best interests as a student & athlete — the whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth.

 

Benjy Wilber & men’s basketball Compliance Coordinator Sarah McPhee declined to comment for this story. Marlon Dechausay referred all questions to Associate Director of Athletics/Media Relations Kent Brown, who responded in writing:  “The DIA won’t be making a statement about this particular issue. ”

 

Categories
Illini basketball

The Baylor Scout

At about 1 a.m. Central Standard time, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker stood in the huge passageway connecting the Orleans Arena to its administrative areas, locker rooms, and public toilets. Jamall called to one of the organizers of the Las Vegas Invitational, inquiring about DVD  copies of the Baylor-Memphis game the two had just watched, along with Ryan Pedon.

The three assistants had different duties. Walker was responsible for scouting Memphis. Parham was responsible for Baylor. Pedon is responsible for advanced scouting, no matter the opponent.

Memphis led 32-29 at halftime. But by the 16:00 media timeout of the 2nd period, the Tigers were clearly out of gas. It was about midnight, body time. That was true for Baylor, too. And in fact, both teams got really sloppy at about that point. But Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale found a second wind, and propelled Baylor to a 71-47 win. That’s the same margin of victory Illinois enjoyed over Indiana State.

The staff of the Las Vegas Invitational, Indiana State SID Achim “Ace” Hunt plus a couple of volunteers, had been up since … well, probably even earlier than the Illini assistants. They delivered a stack of game books (box score + play-by-play) to Pedon. Maybe they tracked down the DVDs, too.

If not, it’s a trifling matter. Both Parham and Walker had video of all the other Memphis and Baylor games, already stored & broken down, on their laptops. In fact, as the live game played out on the Orleans Arena court, the three of them compared live plays to stored video from previous games.

The players wouldn’t see anything until the morning. Presumably, they were already in bed. Parham’s wife Keisha and younger son Kai were (hopefully) also asleep, back at the Renaissance Hotel. Also making the trip were the Allison Groce and her boys, Erin Basgier, and Marcie Ford plus Max and Abbie. Neither Allison nor Marcie was thrilled with the activities Vegas provides for younger people.

“Younger people” is, of course, a relative term. Abbie and Kai are old enough to appreciate Vegas simply  for its 70 degrees and sun. Erin and Mike Basgier had a date for a restaurant named “Tao” after the game. (I don’t think they’re Buddhists, but they are interesting.) Max Ford, and the Groce boys, needed something to do. Guzzling liquor and cigarettes and the blackjack table is not yet an option. (Plenty of orange clad gamers did sit at those tables, feeding the Orleans coffers, before & after the 2 p.m. start, and they were plenty drunk throughout the game. So don’t worry about Vegas, it made its payroll.)

The only two “younger” people in a good position to enjoy Vegas nightlife were Sam McLaurin, and his girlfriend Noelle Paquette. Sam is currently located in San Marcos, Texas. He’s working in the construction industry, and it keeps him on the move. But he still makes it to an Illini game now and then.

I thought it was pretty fun that Noelle’s last name is “Paquette.” It would have worked so well in the Introducing Sam McLaurin video.

After this one, and before he and Noelle had a chance to sample Vegas nightlife, Sam took the time to greet intoxicated Illini fans, many of whom remembered who he was. “What year did you play?” asked one fifty-ish woman. “You’re ‘Canada’ right?” (referring to Jean Selus.)

More booze tonight, and headaches tomorrow, for Illini fans.  New Year’s resolutions are still a month away.