Groce leaving Ohio to take top job at Illinois
Coach calls it 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'
By Lonnie McMillan / Contributor
Thursday, March 29, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois introduced Ohio’s John Groce as its new head coach in a press conference today.
In four seasons with the Bobcats, Groce, 40, was 85-56, with two NCAA tournament appearances following championships in the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Ohio reached the Sweet 16 this year for the first time in 48 years, losing in overtime to North Carolina.
He replaces Bruce Weber, who was fired after nine seasons with the Illini. Illinois was just 17-15 this past season with a 6-12 record in the Big Ten and failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time since 2008. Weber was 41-49 in Big Ten play during his tenure.
“I can’t explain to you what the last few days have been like,” Groce said. “The chance to be standing up here, as I looked at it for my family, being a guy from Danville, Ind., about 107 miles away – I MapQuested it – it’s hard to believe. As a kid I grew up watching Big Ten basketball … I have some fond memories of Illinois, of Big Ten basketball. When I say once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s exactly what I meant. It’s the first and only job I’ve interviewed for since I’ve been at Ohio.”
Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said Groce will make a base salary of $1.4 million per season for five years.
The Bobcats set a school record for wins this season, finishing 29-8. They went 11-5 in MAC play, finishing third, and won the conference tournament for the second time in three years. They won the MAC tournament in 2010 as a No. 9 seed and shocked Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 14 seed.
Immediately after being introduced, Groce thanked Ohio University and later said the only “con” he could come up with in deciding to take the job at Illinois, was saying good-bye to his players in a meeting this morning.
Groce, who made a base salary of $300,000 (including $50,000 for appearances) at Ohio, said the university made a counter-offer in an effort to try to keep him.
“They did everything they could,” he said. “(President) Dr. Rod (McDavis) and (Athletic Director) Jim Schaus really worked hard to give our family an opportunity to stay. … At the end of the day, it came back to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the fit.”
Before coming to Ohio, Groce served as an assistant coach to Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. He played college basketball at Taylor in Indiana.
“This is an exciting day for the u of Illinois and our men’s basketball program,” Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said. “… Coach Groce certainly has a tremendous record of competitive success. He’s an outstanding recruiter. He spent almost his whole basketball life in the Midwest and is part of the Big Ten fabric. His pedigree and the coaches he’s work with, he’s had great mentors and has worked side by side with some of the best coaches in the country. He has a lot of energy.”
Some of Groce’s appeal to Illinois was his ability to recruit top-level talent while at Ohio State, especially in the Chicago area, from which he landed Evan Turner. Groce also landed D.J. Cooper from the Chicago area at Ohio.
Ever since both VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens turned down the Illinois job, Groce has been rumored to be the top candidate. An agreement between Groce and Illinois was rumored for days, but it took time to work out details.
Part of the delay in announcing Groce as coach might have been negotiating involving assistant coaches.
“There will be some guys coming with me from Ohio,” Groce said. “That’s in flux based on what happens there.”
Ohio later held a press conference with Athletic Director Jim Schaus answering questions about replacing Groce.
“We’re excited about where this is headed,” Schaus said. “There will be a national search. We’re very confident we’ll be hiring a very high-level coach that will lead us to that next level.”
Schaus said after the program’s recent success and increase in attendance, Ohio is in better position for hiring a coach than it was four years ago when it brought in Groce.
He said it would be in the best interest of the coaching search to keep candidates “confidential,” but he said he would consider all kinds of possibilities, including current college head and assistant coaches, from all parts of the country.
Chief among the rumored candidates to replace Groce is current Ohio State assistant and former Ohio player Jeff Boals. Current Ohio assistant coach Dustin Ford, if he is not among those who go with Groce to Illinois, also could be a candidate, while former player Gary Trent has expressed interest in becoming an assistant.
“There’s a lot of people of high caliber interested in this job right now,” Schaus said. “… I think the search will go fairly quickly. I think the search has to be fairly expedient, but it certainly will not be rushed.”