Groce will not be out-worked on recruiting trail

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  • Illinois’ head coach John Groce instructs his team during the quarter-final game of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament. Groce is currently gearing up for fall recruiting season.

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On March 23, 2013, Illinois head coach John Groce faced his team in the locker room following a crushing NCAA tournament loss to Miami.

His players were dejected, with several of them in tears, their season at an end. Groce then delivered a stirring post-game speech that featured, among many others, this memorable quote:

“When you get hit in the mouth in life, because it will happen, remember to be resilient.”

Coaches at all levels tend to give empty, rah-rah speeches that are littered with clichés and worn-out mottos and adages. Groce is different. This guy means what he says, and it shows.

Groce has been “hit in the mouth” several times during his tenure at Illinois, most notably during his recruiting battles for the nation’s top talent.

It happened in 2012 when Demetrius Jackson picked Notre Dame over the Illini. It happened in 2013 when Quentin Snider de-committed and Cliff Alexander tossed the Illinois hat aside.

It happened last Wednesday when Jalen Brunson picked Villanova over Illinois.

But Groce defines resiliency. Mere hours after Brunson revealed his Villanova shirt at a press conference, Groce was in Cleveland watching Carlton Bragg, one of the best players in the country, participate in a workout. The day before that, he was giving one final pitch to Brunson at his home in the Chicago suburbs. After watching Bragg, Groce flew to Texas last Thursday for in-home visits with recruits Jawun Evans and Elijah Thomas. With the Illini still in the running for all three, Groce wasted no time and hit the road.

Groce simply took the punch from Brunson, nodded, and moved on. He makes his recruits feel like a top priority, and that’s why he’s able to go toe-to-toe with college basketball’s blue bloods in these recruiting battles.

When does this guy sleep? Seriously. If Groce isn’t on a plane on the way to woo the nation’s top recruits, he’s in Champaign overseeing pre-season workouts (which will soon transition to official practices) and facing the media. He’s often spotted jogging around town in his spare time. His head coaching duties include the oversight of an entire staff of coaches, managers and trainers, as well as the 15 players on his team.

If you think that seems like a lot for one man to take on, there’s more. On Sept. 2, Groce and his staff hosted a “Chalk Talk” event at the Ubben Practice Facility for the women of the local community. On Sunday, he was in Bloomington, Ill., speaking at a coaching clinic. Similar obligations are year-round, and they’re part of the job.

One of the most important wrinkles of Groce’s job is making himself — a middle-aged man — seem cool to 17-year-old recruits. He excels at it. Evans has come away from visits impressed with Groce’s integrity. Thomas has spoken positively of his relationship with him. Bragg has even been quoted as saying, “Coach Groce is my man.”

How Groce manages to squeeze all of this into his schedule is beyond me. The guy is tireless. But that’s why they pay him the big bucks, and if you ask me, he’s earning every penny.

Things have gone relatively quiet on the recruiting front since Groce visited Evans and Thomas, and it appears Evans intends to stick with his plan of visiting Oklahoma State on Sept. 24 before making a final decision.

While we wait on a verdict from Evans, Illini fans will get to enjoy the presence of another top prospect on campus this weekend. Groce will host Thomas for an official visit, who is fresh off a visit to Oklahoma State. Both Illinois and Oklahoma State are pitching the opportunity to play together in college to Evans and Thomas, who are friends and teammates on the AAU circuit.

At this point, the Illini have a realistic chance of landing both. But if Evans and Thomas go elsewhere, Groce will take heat for being the bridesmaid in yet another recruiting battle. Such is the life when you have a job that relies largely on the whims of 17-year-olds.

Either way, Illini fans can take solace in the fact that their coach won’t be out-worked.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.