By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “Have a good weekend. Don’t die.”READ MORE: COVID-19 In Illinois: More Than 3 Million Residents Fully Vaccinated, But Cases And Hospitalizations Still Up Significantly Over Past Month
That’s what my students hear from me every Friday as they walk out the door. It used to get chuckles, but now it’s cliche. Try as a I might, I fall into that dork teacher catchphrase thing I mocked when I sat in a high school desk.
But it’s better than the seemingly constant lectures the kids get about responsibility and wise decisions and how their behavior outside the school affects the reputation of everyone past, present and future at the school and all the rest of the stuff that makes teenage eyes roll.
They’re collectively good kids who might make a mistake here or there and won’t have their behavior altered by a drone over the PA or earnest pleas from me. So they know “Don’t die” encapsulates a request to not do something that literally risks lives but also something that could kill an academic or potential professional career or my reputation as part of their school (it’s all about me, and they know this). I care with sarcasm.
Certainly, University of Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce cares. He wants his players to succeed on the court, in the classroom and in those other walks of their lives he can’t control. This may be my own naivete, but to hear Groce speak about the Illini program in his gravelly voice, there seems to be a lack of the coachy-coach used-car salesmanship to him. I’m sure he has repeated his own version of “Don’t die” to his student-athletes.
And now he needs to be fired.
After junior guard Kendrick Nunn’s arrest for domestic violence Thursday, there’s simply no way someone can’t be held responsible for the collective medical waste explosion that is the Illini program. And who else but the head coach?
“It’s important today that folks understand that John Groce is going to continue to be our basketball coach,” new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said on WDWS-AM radio less than two weeks ago. “He’s a first-class individual and an excellent leader. He’s a student of basketball and leadership and I feel really comfortable with the leadership he’s given our guys.”
You and I can’t speak to the subjective sports term of “leadership” as it applies to the intimacies of Groce and his players. But the recent epidemic of legal troubles with this team coming on the heels of Whitman specifically getting the AD job because of ousters from 2015’s department disasters in football and women’s basketball not only suggests there’s some disconnect between the coach and players operating outside the athletic facilities but also a not-quite-killed virus of bad character and bad PR in Champaign. Coaches don’t get to survive epidemics.
After his new boss’s endorsement, Groce spoke happily about faith in him and unwittingly shot himself in the foot as the status of the team stands today (bold emphasis mine).
“It means a lot. I’ve had a few face-to-face interactions with him and some over the phone as well,” Groce said, according to the (Decatur) Herald & Review. “But he has a great understanding of where we started what we’ve been through, where we’re going, how we’re going to do it and what we’re about.”
Today the Illini are about arrests and going about almost everything off the court the wrong way.READ MORE: Preparation Work Begins In Jackson Park Ahead Of Fall Groundbreaking For Obama Presidential Center
Three Illini players have been arrested in the past month. Two have been arrested since the dreaded vote of confidence, both within the last seven days, both for domestic violence. It must be noted in the case of junior guard Jaylon Tate being arrested on an alleged domestic battery charge, his lawyer now says that in an email, the accuser has recanted her original statement saying Tate hit her. Tate remains indefinitely suspended as the case plays out.
There can be no justification made for having four players arrested in just more than seven months. No, Groce can’t make his players do or not do something on their own time. No, the actions of Illini players isn’t necessarily reflective of Groce the person.
But there’s a cultural pattern here, and Groce is responsible for fostering that culture. The coach-as-teacher thing that college hoops fans like to throw around in better times needs to apply in the worst of times, and Groce’s voice doesn’t seem to be haunting his players’ heads away from basketball. Whatever his “Don’t die” has been, it has killed his job.
After the arrestees are done considering how their choices are going to impact the rest of their lives, they can consider how those choices necessitated the booting of their coach.
On Thursday, Illinois released the below statement.
Besides the cringeworthy “allow the legal process to work before passing judgment” that inherently invalidates the woman accusing Nunn of violence toward her (you’re going to want to work on the impact your words have, Josh), there’s a lot of “we” in that joint statement. But after the swiftness with which Whitman fired Bill Cubit — who by all accounts did everything right in his time at Illinois — in order to get Lovie Smith in as football head coach, it’s puzzling how Groce is still employed.
And that’s not to mention that Illini hoops itself — which isn’t in the NCAA Tournament again — has underachieved with Groce the recruiter and bench skipper.
Before Nunn’s arrest, The Champaign Room did a terrific job outlining the plunge of Illinois basketball. The 19 losses this season tied a program record. For the first time since 1980, the Illini have missed the NCAA Tournament three straight times. The Champaign Room also points out that suspensions of Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby in the 2014-’15 reflect poorly.
Today, my students will hear the less-than-energetic request of “Don’t die” as they head off to the great unknown that is the teenage weekend. And today the behavior of the Fighting Illini players should have killed off their less-than-influential teacher of a coach.MORE NEWS: Bell-Ringing Ceremony Honors Chicago Firefighter Edward Singleton
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations