CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – John Groce took the Ohio Bobcats farther in the NCAA tournament than they had been in nearly 50 years.
He will get a chance to bring that level of success back to a Big Ten team.
Illinois introduced Groce as its new head coach Thursday, bringing him in to replace the fired Bruce Weber.
“Obviously our family is excited to be a part once in a lifetime opportunity,” Groce said.
The 40-year-old Groce has been at Ohio, a Mid-American Conference school, since 2008. He led the Bobcats to the NCAA tournament twice, including a run to the Sweet Sixteen this year that ended with an overtime loss to North Carolina. The Bobcats hadn’t been that far in the tourney 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. And I can tell you, he has a lot of energy.”
In four seasons at Ohio, Groce was 85-56 overall and 34-30 in MAC games. The competition will increase sharply in the Big Ten for Groce, who will take over an Illini team that finished the year 17-15 after a 2-12 collapse at the end of the season.
The free fall from the top of the Big Ten and a spot in the Top 25 to ninth place in the conference cost Weber his job after nine seasons in Champaign, and the Illini for the third time in five seasons were left out of the NCAA tournament; after a snub by the National Invitation Tournament, they missed the postseason altogether.
Groce promised to try to end the slide.
“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.”
Groce was reportedly targeted after Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens passed up chances to take over at Illinois.
He 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 will expect him to recruit in Chicago, the basketball hotbed that Weber never quite cracked. The city’s best players rarely chose Illinois — Derrick Rose chose Memphis, Ohio State landed Evan Turner and Anthony Davis went to Kentucky.
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 played college basketball at tiny Taylor University, an NAIA Division II school in Upland, Ind., before making the rounds as an assistant coach and then landing the Ohio job. His last team was his best.
The Bobcats finished this season 29-8. As 13 seed, Ohio knocked off Michigan and South Florida before taking North Carolina to overtime, finally losing to the top-seeded Tar Heels 73-65.
Ohio fans this week started an online petition to try to keep Groce, and school administrators said they were trying to raise money to increase his pay and keep him at Ohio. Groce is being paid $355,000 this year, according to the school, including bonuses.
He comes to Illinois during a difficult period for the school.
Weber was only one of three high-profile coaches on campus fired during 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.
When Thomas hired Tim Beckman to replace Zook, two university trustees declined to vote in favor of a contract for the new football coach because the school has never had a black head football or basketball coach. The trustees, Lawrence Oliver III 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 lengthy, well-publicized tensions with faculty over his management style and some policies he favored.