Published Tue, Mar 20, 2012 5:29 pm Dateline
His eyes are wide open and wandering. His face is full of color. An astute smirk steers his face into affable interaction with both familiar and strange surroundings.
John Groce is standing in the tunnel of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville last Thursday, peering into the very venue that will ultimately vault him into college coaching lore. He is as amiable as ever, pacing about the back hallways of the arena radiating the aura of a revered socialite.
He is a purse-less Paris Hilton with a Powerade instead of a dog. In these moments he has no occupation - only a presence. In this moment, he could cause quakes of cackling by telling a knock-knock joke. He owns the emotion of the entrance tunnel. It’s a John Groce smile away from a celebration but a frown away from a funeral.
As he bluntly banters with local and national broadcasters, it becomes clear that his presence only exists in mind and body. He is thinking like Thursday. He is acting as if he acknowledges everything around him. But much like a weathered coal miner or a weary steel worker, his soul is in Friday. He is actually working now, but he will actually live later.
On Thursday, he shakes he hands of local and national broadcasters, but he is truly shaking hands with his opposition. On Thursday, he pats the event staff on the back, but he is truly patting his players on the back. On Thursday, he jogs to the stands and visits his wife and son, but even then he is truly visiting destiny. As he prepares to leave the tunnel and head back to the locker room, he takes another taste of that purple Powerade, but he truly tastes victory.
His glare is piercing. His eyebrows delve downward furiously from both sides, nearly meeting in the center of his locked in stare. His lips are peacefully pursed. His ears strained outward in irrelevance. To John Groce, not a word is spoken, and from him not a word is heard.
Thirty minutes ago, the mid-major magician had done it again. He had led a group of misfits and underdogs straight from a stressful climb in Cleveland to the national spotlight. He, and his Ohio team, had upset the fourth-seeded Michigan Wolverines.
Where was the uninhibited joy? In this situation, most peoples’ ears wouldn’t be closed off to the world. They’d be holding up their grin. Some people would be doing 200-meter backstrokes all night in pools of champagne. Even more low-key guys would be slurping a “Main Street Margarita” in the midst of being serenaded by the friendly and engaging staff of a Nashville area Applebees. However, no such celebration is materializing.
So, where is John Groce in this moment of solitude? He is sitting in the same room as thousands of other people. He has spoken with his team, talked to the press, and put his triumph in his past. Now he is perched on press row with poor posture, pocketing a look at his next opponent as Temple and South Florida go to battle.
He is camouflaged into the media table with his coaching staff at his side. He is a pen and pad away from publishing a column. He is a pair of penny loafers and a microphone way from pounding out a podcast. He’s a wardrobe upgrade and a head of hair away from plugging in to an evening newscast. Yet, to no surprise of anyone around him and the program, what he is, in all reality, is a win away from the Sweet 16.
John Groce is staring pensively downward. His head is tilting unbeknownst to his measurably engaged conscious. His mouth moves so flawlessly and his words flow so fluently that shifts in expression are nearly nonexistent. His face full of color, John Groce is nourished. He is fulfilled - by victory, by optimism, and by gratitude.
It is Saturday afternoon, and Groce sits in front of the media assembled in Nashville. He has been offered a question about one of his players - Walter Offutt. The coach is humbled immediately at the mention of his locker room leader's name. At times throughout the season and tournament runs, he has attempted to address the meaning of Offutt to him personally as well as to the program. He has fielded questions about Offutt and explained his feelings. He has also imposed the idea of Offutt’s meaning on the media amidst unrelated interrogation.
Yet, through the entire journey, his face has returned to the state it is in at this moment. He is a famously good communicator. He has a vibrant personality. But when it comes to articulating the meaning of his transfer two-guard, he cannot completely convey it to the outside world.
When the subject of Walter Offutt comes up, he is Moses without Aaron. Bach without fingers. A slugger without steroids. A celeb without rehab. In the most literal sense, an orator without words.
Groce’s head bobs. His eyes sparkle softly. His nostrils flare flagrantly. His lips conceal his teeth in their entirety forming an open mouth smile.
Frankly he looks like a Fixodent model before a photo shoot. His mouth is agape with no indication of teeth or tongue to interrupt the perceptibly endless trail to his tonsils. He releases a hearty laugh, likely lifted from his chest and bellowed out through his hoarse larynx. It is the kind of laugh that is oozing with sincerity. No proficient public relations professional would fail to prohibit such a sound from being released.
Groce has just cracked one of his trademark wife-related wisecracks late in his Saturday press conference. It is really a cunning move at its core. It is as if he is taking a stab at challenging the immutable monotony of the moment. Perhaps he seeks to trigger a brief tide of emotion from a room that is infested with biting neutrality.
The bid falls largely on deaf ears. The stoic stalwarts in the mainstream press release nary an expression. Unfazed by the entire scene, Groce giggles on. After all, it’s like the press is waiting in line at the polls to vote for their next county auditor. They treat such things like the middle of the sixth inning at a Pirates game. On this steamy Saturday in Nashville, the press is shuffling through nickels at the local Laundromat. John Groce is in paradise.
His eyes are engaged. His eyebrows readied. His mouth moves concisely. His face is colorful. It’s vigilant. John Groce is locked in.
By looking at Groce, no one in Bridgestone Arena would be able to tell that his Bobcats are trailing South Florida in the first half. Ohio fans may not be able to tell that it is John Groce. If this were a conference game at the Convo (in the middle of a seven minute scoring draught that is featuring questionable officiating), there would Athens area firefighters working on prying Groce’s right foot out of the scorer’s table.
Tranquility has trounced temper for Ohio’s head coach this postseason. Perhaps he has been humbled by the play of his point guard Dj Cooper under the bright lights of March.
It’s possible he would feel crass, conveying comfort as an unadorned 13th seed on the national stage. Or maybe the John Groce that Ohio University has come to know and love is in the middle of developing a new comfort zone.
If that is the case, only one question remains, Will St. Louis be in it?