CHAMPAIGN—Fresh out of Taylor University in Indiana, John Groce once taught math at a small-town high school while helping coach four basketball teams.That hectic pace might be easy compared to the work that awaits him at Illinois.Groce was introduced Thursday as the Illini’s new coach, just days removed from leading Ohio University to the Sweet 16, the Bobcats’ deepest NCAA tournament run in nearly 50 years. He will be taking over a team that has missed the tournament three of the last five years.With his wife and two young sons nearby, the 40-year-old Groce said he sees nothing but potential at Illinois.
“I thought to myself, `Illinois, why not? Why can’t we become the standard for excellence among those Big Ten teams competing for championships, earning the right to do that?’ And by doing that you become a player on the national stage,” he said. “The answer was, we can.”
“If you don’t have thick skin in this profession, you’re in trouble,” he said. “There’s going to be skeptics.”
Groce will be paid a base salary of $1.4 million a year and has a five-year contract, a significant upgrade from the $355,000 he was getting this year at Ohio. In all, he spent four seasons at the Mid-American Conference school and was 85-56 overall. This year was his best, with the Bobcats finishing 29-8 and making it to the round of 16 for the first time since 1964.Groce was an assistant with Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State before taking over at Ohio.
“He’s had great mentors,” athletic director Mike Thomas said. “He’s worked side by side with some of the best coaches in the country.”
Ohio administrators this week tried to come up with a big enough raise to keep Groce.
“They did everything they could,” he said, declining to say how much the school offered. Groce said he had a “hard meeting” with players there.
Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus said at a news conference in Athens, Ohio, that Groce set a standard the school plans to improve on, and said a national search for a replacement will start right away.The competition will increase sharply in the Big Ten for Groce. His new team lost 12 of its last 14 on the way to a 17-15 finish and, after a snub by the National Invitation Tournament, missed the postseason entirely, The free fall from the top of the Big Ten and a spot in the Top 25 to ninth place in the conference cost Bruce Weber his job after nine seasons in Champaign.Groce said he met with Illinois players on Thursday, but doesn’t yet know whether he can keep sophomore center Meyers Leonard, an NBA prospect and the biggest talent on the roster, in school. Players who met Groce said they were impressed in a brief meeting.
“We’re all excited to get rolling,” junior Tyler Griffey said. “It’s been, I don’t want to say awkward, (but) a difficult transition.”
Groce will be expected to restore some luster to the Illini, who have tailed off since losing the national title game in 2005 to North Carolina even as expectations remain high. Many of Weber’s critics complained he let Chicago’s best players get away—Derrick Rose chose Memphis, Ohio State landed Evan Turner and Anthony Davis went to Kentucky—and Groce will be expected to do a better job recruiting the basketball hotbed.One of Groce’s Ohio players, D.J. Cooper, is from Chicago, and the coach is credited with helping bring Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook to Ohio State.
“There’s a lot of people in that city who care about those kids that we’re going have to work at to connect with,” Groce said of Chicago. “We have better connection there maybe than people think.”
Groce arrives during a difficult period for the school.Weber was only one of three high-profile coaches on campus fired over the past four months. Football coach Ron Zook lost his job late last year and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law was fired this spring. Law’s replacement, Wisconsin–Green Bay’s Matt Bollant, was hired on Wednesday.When Thomas hired Tim Beckman to replace Zook, two university trustees declined to vote in favor of a contract for him because the school has never had a black head football or basketball coach. The trustees, Lawrence Oliver II and James Montgomery, are both black but have since said they could support a white head basketball coach as long as they believed the hiring process gave black coaches a fair chance.Then, last week, university President Michael Hogan resigned under pressure after tensions with faculty.