Smile Politely

Losing it

I have good news and bad news for John Groce. The good news is that Illini fans were not booing his players on Saturday. The bad news is that fans were booing his offense Saturday.

College basketball is all about the coach, while pro basketball is all about the players. You’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it again.

John Groce was a math major, so he knows about transitive and associative properties. He knows about set theory. As John Groce likes to say when not quite criticizing his players “he knows that.”

In his somber post-Iowa presser, Groce said it’s OK to criticize him. So in a way, the bad news I have for Groce is good news: By booing his offense, the fans were booing John Groce.

Groce makes $1.5 million in a down economy. I think it’s OK to criticize him, too.

Because John Groce is a teacher, his goal is to make his team better over the course of an academic year. He’s never said “I don’t care about winning and losing” but he’s come close, frequently.

When I wrote Tuesday night in Atlanta, John Groce did not give his team their best chance to win,  it replaced my initial phrasing John Groce did not do everything in his power to win this game.”

The italics implied a long view. My theory was that John Groce sacrificed a win to preserve Tracy Abrams. Two weeks later, in Saint Louis, the strategy seemed to pay dividends.

I’ve contemplated that unused sentence ever since. Groce continues to stick by Tracy Abrams. Tracy continues to drive against triple-teams in late game situations.  Groce and his stats guys could tell you the exact number of times this strategy succeeds. I’d guess it’s about 2 of every 9, but it might be more like 1 in 3.

As I’ve written many times, Tracy is a bulldog. That’s a good thing. I don’t want to muzzle him.

But I understand why Illini fans groan when they see Tracy respond the same way to late game situations. What they’re saying is John Groce, show us something else. We’ve seen this movie, and it ends badly.

It may be shocking to Groce that Illini fans express their dissatisfaction audibly. But to those of us who’ve been around the program longer than John Groce (which is all of us, just about), it’s nothing new.

Recent Illini history includes three memorable occasions when Illini fans voiced their exasperation. Against Cornell, it was mostly groaning, the type we all heard Saturday as Tracy Abrams slowly walked the ball upcourt, with 37 seconds remaining and Illinois trailing Iowa by six points.

Three days earlier, Cliff Alexander heard the hearty booing of an uninhibited, alcohol-soaked Chicago-based Illini fandom which, reasonably, viewed the UNLV shellacking as the last straw for Bruce Weber. (Note to Groce: To the extent that it affects the choices of top recruits; it’s your job to stop fans from booing, not the other way around.)

The dwindling Champaign crowd chimed in three weeks later, booing the team’s inability to get a shot off against Nebraska, on the last possession of the first half.

There’s one guy who draws up the play in timeouts. There’s one guy who hollers for movement on court. Back then, it was clearly Bruce Weber’s direction — hapless bouts of running in circles — that fans booed.

The thing that killed Bruce Weber, forced Mike Thomas to fire him, was the horror of rewatching the same tragedy over and over again. The people who pay John Groce’s salary (and every single one of the DIA’s 334 partial and full athletic scholarships*) like happy endings. But the thing they really like is to be surprised. If something didn’t work the last seven times they saw it, they don’t want to see it an eighth time.

Like John Groce, the fans also don’t care about winning and losing as much you might think. They too care about getting better, which means they care about not losing the same way over and over again.

As the DIA pleads for donors to fund the State Farm Center renovation, its two revenue sports present nothing but frustration. Over the last months, I’ve heard increasing criticism from a variety of the very best-connected Illini fans. These are people who bleed orange and blue as much as you do, and more than Mike Thomas (Colorado State ‘83) or John Groce (Taylor ‘94) perhaps ever will. More importantly, these are the people whose donations supported the growth of Illini sports since Gene Vance’s administration. Some didn’t arrive until Cecil Coleman ran the athletic department. They all paid to have Neale Stoner’s pool cleaned.  Most importantly (perhaps), these are people whose cold, calculated capabilities earned them enough money to become Important Alumni. They are the hunted, according to DIA targeted mailings. Some people in the DIA are smart enough to recognize that these donors are the hunters.

Among their talking points:

  • A small working liquid capital fund of $17 million blown on hiring/firing. (When Mike Thomas arrived, the DIA had $17 black dollars. These dollars are now waterskiing in Florida, and shoveling their own snow in Manhattan, Kansas.)
  • Why fire Jolette Law? Who cares? (The implication being that women’s basketball is for Title IX purposes only.)
  • Why give Groce a bonus after his first year? (The implication being not so much that he reached/exceeded/failed the expectations of his contract, but the more pragmatic “really, where’s he going to go after one year, when he finished 8-10 in conference?” All right, it’s not an implication. That’s a direct quote.)
  • Well-connected sources say fundraising is terrible right now, that the SFC project is a disaster, the outreach embarrassingly amateur.

Is it true?

I didn’t even bother to ask these people whether they wanted to speak on the record. (I trust their knowledge implicitly.) One works in university administration (nothing to do with athletics, but knowledgeable about Development in the much larger picture). One is connected to the highest levels of state government vis-à-vis university oversight. One is simply a major donor.  

Is it true?

John Giuliani, Jim Benson and Mannie Jackson just contributed five, two and three million dollars respectively and chronologically. If investor signaling is as important as TechCrunch says, it will soon be raining money.

Jump-cut back to basketball. What do these people think of John Groce? It’s mostly the long view. I don’t know a single person of influence who’s declared defeat in the Groce hiring. As far as I know, every important person still has his back.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t analyzed his strengths & weaknesses, victories and failures.

Shortly after Tracy Abrams played one-on-three until the clock reached zero, I asked one courtside observer “Tracy has met Ray, right? I mean, he knows Ray is on the team too?” It’s the kind of sarcasm that people like me utter in situations of bitter disappointment and frustration. 


My sarcasm was answered with somber realism: “that’s coaching.” This student of the game, one of the more important members of the Illini community who’s not 20 years old and six-foot-something, explained the situation in two words: John Groce has instilled & insisted on tonight’s outcome.

Fran McCaffrey (the best Big Ten coach for press conference purposes, and perhaps the best Big Ten coach overall) explained Tracy’s final moments, giving a lot of credit to Tracy, here at 9:23:

John Groce gives the impression — and states outright — that he wants to get the best from each of his teams. I applaud that sentiment.

The results are not as laudable. The Illini look headless at games’ end. It’s not just Iowa. They look headless generally. Tracy Abrams versus three tall defenders is not your best option. Dribbling slowly up the court is not aggressive, and won’t score three baskets in 37 seconds. This Illini team continues to betray its profound misunderstanding of situation, its misconception of time.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter. Groce gets a pass on this year. But Illinois could have won, and instead it lost in easily predictable fashion.

*The University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics funds the maximum allowed scholarships in every sport it offers. Of 515 student-athletes, there are 258.5 scholarships distributed among 334 individual people.

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