CHAMPAIGN — Reeda Charis, an 87-year-old Illini fan, shuffled up to John Groce on the Assembly Hall court and asked for an autograph on her orange pullover. No problem, Groce said, but then came her second request to the man introduced earlier Thursday as the Illinois men’s basketball coach: Win some games.
CHAMPAIGN — Reeda Charis, an 87-year-old Illini fan, shuffled up to John Groce on the Assembly Hall court and asked for an autograph on her orange pullover.
No problem, Groce said, but then came her second request to the man introduced earlier Thursday as the Illinois men’s basketball coach.
“You’ve got to give me some wins before I go,’’ she said.
No pressure there, huh?
Like most kids from Indiana, Groce was a Hoosiers fan and cheered for Bobby Knight — thanks in part to his grandmother — while growing up in the west-side Indianapolis suburb of Danville.
Basketball has taken him 107 miles west of there to Illinois, where he accepted “an opportunity of a lifetime’’ by pulling on a blue Illini baseball cap at an introductory ceremony before a couple-hundred fans.
There’s a wait-and-see attitude about Groce, a 40-year-old married father of two boys who learned long ago his calling was coaching more than playing. He guided Ohio University to the Sweet 16 last week and a win in the NCAA tournament in 2010. These days, reputations are built in March.
The analyzing of his 34-30 record in four seasons in the Mid-American Conference (he was 85-56 overall at Ohio) started two or three days before he arrived on campus.
Coupled with Illinois’ inability to land Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens — and likely more names on that short list — Groce faces a challenge in proving himself to the Chicago prep and AAU coaches.
“I’m flattered to be here,’’ Groce said. “There are always skeptics in life. If you don’t have a thick skin in this profession, you’re in trouble.’’
Groce will earn $1.4 million per season in a five-year deal. Illinois will pay his $200,000 buyout to Ohio. Groce replaced Bruce Weber, who was fired on March 9 after the Illini missed the NCAA tournament three times in the last five seasons.
“How the process played out was according to plan,’’ Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said. “I truly believe he’ll be a big success.’’
After firing football coach Ron Zook, men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law, Thomas replaced them with white males from lower-level programs, but he said diversity was found in his pool of candidates.
What moved the needle forward for Thomas was Groce’s ability to recruit. In 2006 while an Ohio State assistant, Groce was named the country’s top recruiter by Rivals.com.
“You talk to the people in this business, they tell you he’s one of the best recruiters in the country,’’ Thomas said. “That’s where it starts. You have to get players.’’
As an assistant at Ohio State under Thad Matta, Groce was essentially the offensive coordinator, Thomas said. Groce also worked for Matta at Xavier and Butler. He worked under Herb Sendek at North Carolina State and played under NAIA legend Paul Patterson at Taylor University.
Groce said the best way to describe his style is “attack.’’
“Like the boxer that tries to knock somebody out in each of 10 four-minute rounds, we’ll play that way defensively,’’ he said. “Offensively, we’ll try to play as fast as we can.’’
The immediate priorities will be trying to keep assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who has two years left on his contract at $190,000 per season, and sophomore center Meyers Leonard. Neither of them seems likely to stay.
Howard and Leonard both skipped Groce’s introduction, but Groce hoped to speak with Howard later in the day.
The freshman class, which took to Twitter to campaign for Howard, were also no-shows at the introduction.
Juniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey were the only players who attended the ceremony.
“As soon as he said the first thing he wanted to do is build strong relationships with you guys, that reminded me of my coach at Findlay Prep,’’ Richardson said. “He was a guy that wanted to get involved with you. Not just coach you, but be a best friend to you as well.’’
John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.