Monday, November 11, 2013
The two-and-a-half hour drive from Valparaiso to Champaign spans a considerable portion of Interstate 57. For Roger Powell Jr., it'll serve as Memory Lane.
Wednesday's contest between the Fighting Illini and Crusaders represents a homecoming for Powell. Once the toast of Champaign, he'll be on the sidelines contriving ways to hand Illinois a loss and leave its rabid student section - the Orange Krush - crushed.
As a senior, Powell was a staple of the 2004-05 Illinois team that tied the NCAA record for wins in a season. With a roster that included Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head, the Illini were men amongst boys.
The '04-'05 version didn't experience its first loss until its 30th game of the season. Furthermore, 25 of the squad's first 29 wins were by a double-digit margin. A three-pointer from Ohio State's Matt Sylvester with five seconds to play in the regular season finale was the only thing that kept U of I from entering the NCAA Championship game an immaculate 38-0.
Illinois' storybook season concluded a chapter short in St. Louis, however. North Carolina did what only one other team could accomplish that season - beat Bruce Weber's club. Dismal first-half shooting and Tar Heel big man Sean May played prominent factors in the 75-70 loss.
"We did things no teams in Illinois or NCAA history ever did. We were two plays from perfection. It was a special season. We had a great group with a lot of different personalities. Roger was a focal point of that," Weber, head coach of the 2004-05 team, said.
Powell echoes Weber's nostalgic sentiments.
"That year was amazing in itself. When I think about it, I try to remember all of the achievements we did have. It was an amazing time in my life," Powell said.
Life went on for that special team.
Williams declared early for the NBA draft and was picked third overall by the Utah Jazz. Head was taken towards the end of the first round by the Houston Rockets. Brown returned to Illinois for his senior season. The 2005-06 team won 26 games before Washington eliminated the Illini in the 2nd round of the Big Dance. Three months later, the Jazz reunited Brown and Williams by taking the Proviso East product with the 46th overall pick of the 2006 draft.
While the other three went on to sign lucrative contracts for over a combined $100 million ($95M and counting for Deron Williams), no one lives a richer life than Roger Powell Jr.
A devout Christian, Powell founded the RPJ Ministries, an organization that mentors young athletes to be superior role models on their teams and in their classrooms. In his college days, he was dubbed Reverend Powell. During athletic staff meetings at Valparaiso, he leads the invocation with prepared and poignant scripture verses. His charismatic aura captivates everyone from first-year coaches to the longest-tenured employees.
A back-to-back regular season Horizon League champion, Powell draws high praise from many industry leaders.
Bill Self, now the head coach at Kansas, recruited Powell out of Joliet and mentored the power forward during his first two years at Illinois. After Powell's sophomore season, Self departed Champaign for Lawrence to take over one of the most highly-coveted coaching jobs in all of basketball.
"Roger was one of the hardest workers I ever coached. He was as focused and driven as any freshman around. I loved coaching him and am even more proud of the man he's become," Self said.
Coming from the 2009 Associated Press and 2012 Naismith College Coach of the Year, those words carry cache.
Powell and Weber - now head coach of the Kansas State Wildcats - remain confidants even now.
"He called me when Coach Drew called him to offer the position at Valpo. I told him 'you may never get an opportunity to get a full-time assistant position at a quality program like that, so if you're serious about coaching, you have to take it.'" Weber said.
Powell obviously was serious about coaching.
Currently in his third season as an assistant under Bryce Drew, Powell accumulated 1,178 points over his four years at the University of Illinois. With the addition of former Stanford standout Matt Lottich, Valpo possesses the nation's fifth highest-scoring coaching staff. A brain trust that not long ago walked the walk, now talks the talk.
The Crusaders have won exactly 50 games since Powell arrived to Valparaiso a little more than two years ago. As a result, he's seen his stock surge as an assistant coach. But he prefers to leave the progression of his coaching career to a higher power. Few Division I coaching positions provide the platform that Powell so passionately occupies like Valpo does. Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso allows him to share his faith. The relationship he has cultivated with Drew and the rest of the coaching staff is steadfast.
"From the first couple times I talked to him, I thought he'd be a tremendous fit for our University and for our basketball program. The character and work ethic he possesses is something that benefits our whole coaching staff and also all our players," Drew said.
The last time he took the court in the building formerly known as Assembly Hall, Powell sported a warm-up suit. Nearly nine years later, he'll don a suit and tie. The wardrobe change represents a man on a renewed journey.
And when Roger Powell Jr. looks to the heavens in praise on Wednesday, his eyes will inevitably be drawn towards a certain banner in the rafters - a Final Four banner that symbolizes a time in which the Reverend and his teammates were kings of the college basketball world.
(Video: Fred Villarruel)
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