“You will NOT stop me. No matter what you do, you will not stop me.”
“You don’t practice any harder than we practice. You don’t do anything better than we do it. Why should we lose?”
When you read those quotes in your head, whose voice do you hear?
Michael Jordan’s? Kobe Bryant’s? Muhammad Ali’s?
It has to be a fierce competitor, right? Someone whose intensely confident mindset rivals the all-time greats?
To find the answer, look no further than Illinois Basketball.
A member of the Flying Illini? No. A player on the historic 2005 championship team? Wrong again.
These quotes come from one of the most accomplished basketball icons in the history of the sport. The sad thing is, many of you may not know who SHE is.
Up until this year, most people knew Illinois women’s basketball as the laughingstock of the Big Ten. Failing to win more than 10 of its past 100 conference games could attribute to that. What people don’t realize is that years ago, one woman was able to lift this program out of the darkness and give it hope.
You just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
HALL OF FAME CAREER
The year was 1995. After a 50-87 coaching stint from Kathy Lindsey — failing to achieve a single winning season — new head coach Theresa Grentz came in looking to change the culture.
“I remember [the players] saying to me, ‘We won’t even wear our basketball attire around campus,’ because we were so bad,” Grentz told TCR. “I said, ‘Well, that’ll change.’”
In just her second year, Grentz led Illinois to a program-best 24 wins en route to its first Big Ten title. At the time, the team was still playing in Huff Hall and the average attendance of 663 in her first season — still an improvement from the previous year — skyrocketed to 4,023 fans per game the next season.
Her team even played a game in Assembly Hall (now State Farm Center) in that record-breaking season, and the attendance reached a whopping 16,050 fans. The stadium can’t even hold that many people now.
Her astounding success in such a short time moved the team’s permanent home location to Assembly Hall starting in the next season. Over her 12 years at Illinois, Grentz made postseason play 10 times, reaching the Sweet Sixteen twice in five NCAA Tournament appearances.
Grentz, now 70, never thought she was going to be a coach, but her competitive mentality gave her a higher level of confidence than most people will ever possess.
“You don’t practice any harder than we practice. You don’t do anything better than we do it. Why should we lose?” Grentz said. “Let the other guy lose. We’re gonna win, you lose! I’m not losing.”
Grentz still holds the title as the winningest coach in Illini women’s basketball history (210-156 record), but her career in the sport extends long before going to Champaign.
The future head coach’s tough mentality originated from her playing days. Grentz was a member of the Immaculata Mighty Macs in Pennsylvania, the team that famously defied all odds to win the first three women’s basketball intercollegiate national championships.
The team came out of nowhere — with almost no resources or equipment — and dominated a very important period of intercollegiate sports. Before the historic run, Grentz told her teammates that they wouldn’t lose a game in four years. In the span they played together, the Mighty Macs went 60-2.
“And I’m still ticked about the two that we lost,” Grentz said.
In 2014, the 1972-74 team was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. As expected, the three-time All-American gave the acceptance speech.
“That really, really was a special time.”
Grentz was incredible at Illinois, but her career at Rutgers was on a different level. The young coach won an AIAW national championship by the time she was 30, and the transition to the NCAA didn’t affect her success at all.
Her accolades kept stacking up. Once she reached her 19th and final year at Rutgers, she had a national championship, nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and four A-10 Coach of the Year honors to go on her resume. She even coached the 1992 Olympic women’s team to a bronze medal.
“It was a great run,” Grentz said. “It really was a wonderful, wonderful vocation.”
Both of her coaching stints at Rutgers and Illinois gave her 644 career wins. In 2022, Grentz was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, and in February, her banner rose into the rafters at State Farm Center.
Without a doubt, Grentz is one of the most impactful women’s basketball figures in the history of the sport. The Illinois women’s basketball program needed her to put it on the map, and for a while, she did just that.
Once Grentz left Illinois, however, it didn’t take long for the program to spiral right back out of control. After the next coach didn’t produce any tournament appearances, things went from bad to worse. A few failed coaching tenures later, Illinois faced a nine-year drought without a winning record.
It was hard enough to do the job that Grentz did; she was one of the best to ever do it. Someone would have to possess the incredible leadership and creativity to replicate that miracle, but who would even be brave enough to take on the daunting task of rebuilding this program?
Enter Shauna Green.
A NEW ERA
Like Grentz, Green had an impressive track record before being lured to Champaign. No, she wasn’t a Hall of Fame player and coach, but her past still speaks for itself.
In just six years as a head coach at the Division I level, Green won five A-10 regular season titles with Dayton, accumulating an impressive 127-50 record.
Because of Illinois AD Josh Whitman’s recruiting effort, he was able to bring one of the brightest young coaches to Illinois. Her previous success was promising, but Green still faced the difficult task of rebuilding one of the least competitive major conference programs of the last 15 years.
What Green made apparent from the start was that she knew how to lead. Former assistants of hers (Calamity McEntire and DeAntoine Beasley) and players from Dayton (Makira Cook and Brynn Shoup-Hill) all followed her to Illinois to assist in the rebuild.
With old friends by her side, Green shocked everyone. In one year, she didn’t just rebuild this failing program — she transformed it. From 23 combined wins in the previous three seasons, Green and her Fighting Illini squad threatened to surpass that number in just one.
A 22-9 record puts Illinois on track to do something it hasn’t done since Grentz was in charge: make the NCAA Tournament.
“If you said 7 or 8 months ago that we’d be sitting here today about the potential to make an NCAA Tournament, I think everyone would probably think we’re crazy, right?” Green said.
She’s right: no one saw this coming. Few Illinois fans remember what it was like to have a women’s basketball team reach the tournament 20 years ago, with many current freshmen and sophomores not even being alive at the time. Adalia McKenzie, one of the leaders of this year’s team, was only a month old.
Grentz is a big supporter of Illinois, but she hasn’t followed a single Illinois team since stepping down from coaching. She says they “disappoint” her.
“You know, they get to February and they quit,” Grentz said. “But these kids, they just play so hard.”
Not only does she enjoy watching every single game these Illini play, but her relationship has also grown with Coach Green. The second that Green was hired by Whitman, her first course of action was to call the Hall of Famer.
“That was really special,” Grentz said. “She didn’t have to call me.”
From there, Green didn’t just attract the attention of Grentz. With her first-year success, the average attendance at State Farm Center rose from 1,237 fans the year prior to 3,486.
For Grentz’s generational success to be replicated, the Illini needed a coach to come in and have the same killer instinct she did. When a coach comes in that determined to turn things around, the players and fans buy in.
“Shauna has a demeanor about herself that just exudes confidence,” Grentz said. “She’s coaching them to be elite. She has a great quality with that.”
As Illinois started to turn heads throughout the season, the pressure kept mounting. New expectations were created for Green’s young team, but her leadership allowed them to persevere through it all.
“Pressure is a good thing,” Green said. “Pressure is part of this, and I think that for me, I think I thrive under that.
“This is good pressure. We’re talking about an NCAA Tournament.”
Few people realize how much Grentz did for this women’s program. Her dedication, confidence and competitiveness brought Illinois from rock bottom up to a level it had never experienced before.
Now, Green has done the unthinkable. In one year, she has revived it back to the level that Grentz worked so hard to maintain. Can Green follow in her footsteps and create a competitive atmosphere that stays in Champaign for years to come?
For Grentz, her confidence never wavered as a player or coach, and when looking at Green, it doesn’t budge one bit.
“I told her, I said, ‘The difficult, we do immediately,’ and that’s what they’ve done,” Grentz said. “The impossible? That takes us a little bit longer, but we’ll get it done.”