URBANA, Ill. — Lessons learned while working on the family
farm during those impressionable years have carried forward to the basketball
court for a Big Ten coach.
John Groce, University of Illinois men’s basketball coach,
reflected on those experiences on the farm and in 4-H when he gave the keynote
address at Agronomy Day, hosted by the Department of Crop Sciences.
Groce said during the days prior to Agronomy Day, he
reminisced about his childhood as, well as experiences showing swine at fairs in
“You probably need to do that more when you reflect back and
think about all of the people and all the experiences that you’ve had when you
were younger and how that shaped you,” he said.
Groce said this past summer a Navy Seal instructor met with
his basketball team and among his messages to the team was “one of the things
I’ve learned as a Navy Seal is that the experience that you go through prepares
you for the next.”
“When I think back about my childhood and its relationship
to the farm, Jerry Steele is my stepfather and we own Steele Hampshires Inc.,
right on the Hendricks County, Putnam County line (in Indiana) where I grew up.
I was nine to probably 14 years old, very impressionable years when you’re that
age,” Groce said.
“You’re learning a lot of different things, but to have the
opportunity to grow up on a farm at that time, I look back on it and lessons
like work ethic, perseverance, being unconditional, a lot of the things that we
talk about with our student athletes.
“Now looking back on it, I learned a lot of those things
right there on the farm.”
He noted how his stepfather, Jerry, and father, Larry Groce,
were great examples of work ethic and credits them for his energy level and own
“Someone called me a grinder the other day. I don’t know if
that’s good or bad,” said the coach.
“But I get a lot of that from the people that I associated
myself with as a youngster in those impressionable, formidable years, and
certainly Jerry and being able to grow up on a farm during that period did
nothing but help that. So I’m very, very thankful for that.”
Also in attendance for the Agronomy Day keynote speech were
his mother, Barbara Steele, and his fifth grade teacher and Happy Farmer’s 4-H
Club leader, Janet Stephenson, and Groce also honored them.
He said the word sacrifice comes to mind when he thinks
about his mother.
“When I was in seventh in grade, I was part of the Elks Hoop
Shoot, which was the national free-throw shooting contest. There was a local,
regional, state, regional/national competition and then the national tournament
in Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, which no longer exists,” he said.
“I remember going in day after day after day at 6 (a.m.) and
mom driving me in and rebounding for me every day. Obviously, I appreciated it,
but I appreciate it a heck of a lot more now looking back, especially now as a
parent having two children.
“When I look back at that now as a father, I’m just in awe
of the amount of sacrifice she made for all of us. It wasn’t just me — it was my
four other siblings, as well.
“I’m very thankful for that and wouldn’t be standing here
today with the wonderful opportunity of being at the University of Illinois
Groce remembers “probably three or four” of his teachers and
professors from his grade school through college years “very vividly, and Mrs.
Stephenson is on the list without question.”
“The reason why was because of her compassion. You felt like
she cared, and I say that to our staff all the time that our guys aren’t going
to care about what we know until they know that we care about them in an
unconditional way,” he said.
“And Mrs. Stephenson did that as not only a teacher, but
also as a 4-H leader in the early 1980s when we had the farm and I was involved
in 4-H and showed pigs.”
Groce showed gilts as a youth in 4-H.
‘One of my favorite things to do was to give them unique
crazy names. The one that I think was the reserve grand champion in the early
1980s I named Tootsie. We had a barrow named Bodacious. We always came up with
creative names,” he said.
Groce sees many similarities between the Illini basketball
program and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences,
noting the comments made earlier in the program by ACES Dean Robert Hauser and
Department of Crop Sciences head German Bollero.
“In listening to Dean Hauser, when he talked about the
Department of Crop Sciences, he used words like extension. Dr. Bollero used the
phrase outreach. Impact was something else he said,” Groce said.
“What’s interesting is what the College of ACES is trying to
do is the same thing we’re trying to do in the men’s basketball program. Impact,
extend past ourselves, outreach, reach out, and the really cool thing is that
we’re all in this together.
“The great thing is the Department of Crop Sciences and the
College of ACES represents the men’s basketball program and our student athletes
and at the same time we represent them.
“We’re a part of that same family as the College of ACES and
the Department of Crop Sciences. We have something bigger, and that is we
represent one of the world’s greatest universities, the University of Illinois.
“It takes a village and each of us is a small part of that
big village that promotes and loves to talk about such a great
“The biggest reason I love (U of I) is because of the
people. People are so friendly. People want to help. People want to give. I
think that’s really rare and unique.
“I love waking up every day and being here because everyone
that I have met gives me that feeling that we’re here and we’re working every
single day to get a little bit better.
“Whether that’s in crop sciences, whether that’s in the
College of ACES, whether that’s in men’s basketball, whether that’s in the
(Division of Intercollegiate Athletics), engineering, business, we’re trying to
get just a little bit better, and I love that.”
Groce asked for a show of hands from those who are or were
involved in 4-H.
“Talking about people and experiences and how that prepares
you for the next and shapes and molds who you are, when you think about 4-H,
there are 6.5 million members in 4-H nationally,” he said. “That is the largest
youth development organization in the world. There are 60 million plus alums of
that 4-H network and 4-H family.
“So you want to talk about a lot of people whose lives have
been touched and impact and influenced those words that Dean Hauser and Dr.
Bollero — impact, extension, outreach — because that’s really what it’s about.”
He said game management and developing plays is important
“but if you’re not tough, if you’re not together, if you don’t exemplify the
core values, no different than 4-H — the 4-Hs of head, heart, hands, health —
it’s the same thing with our program.”