Before Travis Steele and his older brother, John Groce, became college basketball head coaches, they grew up in Danville, Indiana and admired the Bob Knight-led Indiana Hoosiers.
When Indiana reached the national championship game against Syracuse in 1987, they were trapped. Steele, who was 5 at the time, recalls his brother breaking down Syracuse’s scouting report, which focused primarily on 7-foot center Rony Seikaly, who averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds in the NCAA Competition.
“I was scared to death of Rony Seikaly,” Steele said. “And that’s one of the first memories of my life.”
Seikaly scored 18 points in that game, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots, but Indiana got the last laugh when Keith Smart hit the legendary short-corner jumper that gave Indiana a 74-73 win and Knight his third national championship in 11 years.
Steele was hooked.
“What’s always striking about Indiana is the passion that everyone on the program and the fans have for basketball,” Steele said. “I always say that in a lot of places it’s just basketball season, but at Indiana University it’s 365 days a year.”
On Sunday, he will coach the Miami of Ohio Redhawks against Indiana at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, about 25 miles east of Steele’s hometown, a school where he served as video coordinator and assistant coach during the Kelvin Sampson era. Game begins at 5:30 p.m. ET (TV: Big Ten Network)
Steele’s coaching career began at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis while he attended Butler University. After graduating in 2004, he served as a graduate assistant at Ohio State for one season before earning his first college job as an assistant coach at Wabash Valley, a community college in Mount Carmel, Illinois.
Steele worked his way up to video coordinator in Indiana in 2006 when Kelvin Sampson replaced Mike Davis as head coach. Sampson came to Indiana after leading Oklahoma to 11 NCAA tournament spots from 1994 to 2006, including a Final Four appearance in 2002, an Elite Eight the following year, and a 72.2 overall win rate.
In this role, Steele broke hours of filming by compiling accounts of adversaries and self-exploration for Sampson and the Hoosiers. Indiana went into the season with many unknowns after losing leading scorers Marco Killingsworth, Robert Vaden and Marshall Strickland, but one game in particular stands out for Steele as he reflects on his freshman year in Indiana.
On January 20, 2007, the Hoosiers traveled to Connecticut to face off against a Huskies team of four future NBA players led by coach Jim Calhoun, himself a three-time national champion coach. But behind 23 points in Roderick Wilmont’s 5-on-8 three-point shootout and 21 points from big man DJ White, Indiana defeated Stanley Robinson, Hasheem Thabeet and the Huskies.
“I was just shocked that we could win,” Steele said. “It was a big game for us. It gave us a little bit of confidence because we didn’t know if we were good… I thought we really maxed this team out in general.”
That win propelled Indiana to No. 23 in the Associated Press poll for the first time all year, and Indiana reached No. 7 in the NCAA tournament before losing to UCLA in the second round. With the return of White and the arrival of the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Eric Gordon, Indiana entered the 2007-08 season with great expectations as the No. 9 team in the AP poll.
The Hoosiers were 22-4 after victories over No. 10 Michigan State and No. 14 Purdue, but on February 22, 2008, Sampson accepted a buyout and resigned as head coach amid allegations of NCAA recruiting violations involving improper phone calls . Dan Dakich — a former Indiana assistant coach from 1985 to 1997 and a former Indiana player under Knight — made the transition from men’s basketball chief to interim head coach. Steele was promoted from video coordinator to assistant coach.
“You saw the emotion and fear that our boys went through during that time when there was a shift,” Steele said. “So I just attacked it.”
Indiana’s first game without Sampson was a road trip to Evanston, Illinois to play Northwestern.
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“Man, it’s been a wild couple of days before just managing to get there and get the team on the ground,” Steele said. “I think our guys were really confused at that point at that point. … I just wanted more than anything to be there for our players and make sure they know they have guys behind them.”
Indiana defeated Northwestern and Ohio State in their first two games under Dakich, but the once-promising season fell apart when Indiana ended with a 4-1 first-round loss to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament.
“Obviously the situation that happened was very unfortunate,” Steele said. “But I’ve always liked the quote – ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself.’ You’re going to go through some tough times in life and you know it won’t be the last for all the men who were in that locker room. That’s how you react to things. That’s the whole key. That was kind of a message from us as we try to stick together and represent Indiana as best we can.”
While Steele’s second and final season in Indiana didn’t end as everyone had hoped, he was grateful for the opportunity to coach at the school he was raised for while being coached by a Sampsons coach in the early stages of his career caliber learned.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever experienced,” Steele said of Sampson, who now coaches in Houston and has a team that’s ranked No. 3 in the nation. “And it really isn’t even close.”
Steele accepted an assistant coaching position under Sean Miller at Xavier prior to the 2008-09 season, but Miller left for Arizona a year later. Steele was retained by new Xavier head coach Chris Mack, who he worked with during the 2017/18 season. Mack and Steele led the Musketeers to three Sweet 16 appearances and the 2017 Elite Eight, and when Mack left for Louisville, Steele was promoted to his first position as college head coaching.
Steele went 70-50 in four seasons at Xavier, but the Musketeers have been .500 or worse in Big East play every season. Xavier was ranked 17th under Steele in the 2021-22 season but went on the stretch 2-7 to miss the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight season. Steele was fired after a first-round NIT win over Cleveland State, and Xavier won the NIT championship without him.
Steele wasn’t unemployed for long. He became head coach at Miami of Ohio last March, knowing he was entering a rebuilding process. Miami is 1-3 this year and has only surpassed .500 once in the past 13 seasons, a 12-11 mark in 2020-21. They have lost to Evansville, Georgia and Marshall so far this season, with their only win against Goshen College, an NAIA school.
However, Steele is excited about the future growth of the program.
“It’s a great place and has a lot of potential,” Steele said. “I think we have to get our culture right and our connectivity has to be right on the ground.”
Steele said his team would be without five injured players against Indiana on Sunday — Kamari Williams, Morgan Safford, Javin Etzler, Curtis Harrison IV and Eli Yofan. That leaves Mekhi Lairy, a 5-foot-6, 140-pound point guard, the only guard with significant college basketball experience. Lairy, whom Steele described as the offensive focal point, almost forced the Redhawks to a win in Georgia on Monday with 34 points, but the Bulldogs walked away with a 77-70 win.
Against a deep and talented frontcourt, Steele emphasizes the importance of confining Indiana to one shot, pushing Trayce Jackson-Davis and others off the block, and slowing down the game.
“It’s almost like football where they have possession,” Steele said. “We’ve got to have the ball a hell of a lot longer than Indiana has the ball.”
And for Steele, Sunday’s game is a special opportunity to practice against the school that sparked his interest in basketball.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to play against a great program like Indiana — Coach Woodson does a great job — it’s a blessing,” Steele said. “I’m glad our boys are getting the opportunity. I know it will be a full house.”
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