News: John Groce hired as new Illinois men’s basketball coach


John Groce said he was working four different jobs when he graduated from Taylor University in 1994.

On Thursday, he got the one of his dreams.

On a risen platform in the middle of the Assembly Hall, Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas introduced Ohio University’s Groce as the next head basketball coach for the Illini.

“I can’t explain to you what the last few days have been like, the chance to be standing up just before you,” Groce said.

“I’m a fit guy,” Groce said. “It was important for me that our family felt like we could plug into a community, be a vibrant part of the community.”

A contract worth $1.4 million per year over five years was reportedly agreed to late Wednesday night.

The coaching staff is still being arranged, but Groce said that some of his assistants from Ohio will likely join him at Illinois. At the time of his introductory press conference, Groce said he had not spoken to Jerrance Howard, who was serving as the Illini’s interim head coach.

“I know he’s a tremendous recruiter and coach and a really good person,” Groce said after the press conference. “I’ve always had great respect for him and his recruiting.”

He added he will try to assemble his staff as quickly as he can but wants to make sure the “right people are on the bus.”

Groce compared his style of play to that of an aggressive boxer. He said the goal is to “knock someone out in each of the 10 four-minute rounds, then come up for air at the end of the media timeout and swing again.” Offensively, Groce said he likes a fast pace, but having depth is key.

“The great thing about this team is that we’re athletic, we have depth, and we can get out there and attack like (Groce) said,” said junior forward Tyler Griffey, who attended the conference. “It should be fun.”

In his four seasons with Ohio, Groce’s teams went a combined 85-56, with a 34-30 record in the Mid-American. His best season came this past year when the Bobcats went 29-8, including winning the MAC Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 after victories over Michigan and South Florida.

Groce led Ohio to one other appearance in the NCAA tournament in the 2009-10 season after winning the conference tournament. His team pulled off another upset when No. 14-seeded Ohio topped No. 3-seeded Georgetown in the first round 97-83.

Though his teams have fared well in the postseason, the regular season has been more of a challenge. His best conference finish is third, which came this past season. He finished fifth in 2010-11 and ninth each of the previous two seasons before that.

Before landing at Ohio, Groce served as an assistant under Thad Matta at Ohio State. He was the lead recruiter and instrumental in bringing in Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, all of whom played on the same AAU team.

In the one season with the three standout freshmen, the Buckeyes were national runner-up. Oden went on to become the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, while Conley was selected No. 4 by the Memphis Grizzlies, and Cook was taken No. 21 by the Miami Heat.

Groce also coached Evan Turner — a native of Chicago — for one season with the Buckeyes. Ohio State went on to win the National Invitational Tournament that year. Turner swept National Player of the Year awards two years later and was selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Effective recruiting in Chicago will be a key focus for the coaching staff in the future, but Groce said the most important aspect was finding “Illinois guys” — players who fit into the culture he hopes to establish — wherever they may be.

Groce has had success with Chicago recruits before, including Turner and D.J. Cooper, who led the Bobcats in scoring this season.

“We have a lot of previously established relationships there, maybe more than what people think,” Groce said. “But I’m looking forward to getting to know (Chicago-area coaches) better than we do now.”

The Illini’s head coaching position opened when Thomas fired Bruce Weber on March 9 with three years and $3.9 million left on his contract. Weber went 210-101 in his nine seasons at Illinois, with an 89-65 mark in Big Ten play.

Illinois originally pursued Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, but he declined what was believed to be an eight-year deal at more than $2.5 million annually. The 34-year-old elected to return to the Rams for his fourth season.

Thomas also reportedly sought out Butler’s Brad Stevens to fill the vacancy, but Stevens announced Sunday he would remain at Butler.

During his portion of the press conference, Thomas did not speak about either coach but said “the process played out according to plan, and I feel good about the end result.”

Various media reports expected Thomas to hire Groce on Tuesday. When there was a delay, skeptics believed the Board of Trustees may have been involved, but Thomas clarified Thursday it was not the case.

“To say there was a flaw or hiccup in the process because others thought a decision or a press conference was supposed to happen two days ago, that’s not true,” Thomas said.

Thomas said plans to renovate the Assembly Hall are underway and that he hopes to sell the project around summer.

He added that there are also plans to upgrade the Ubben Basketball Complex sometime in the future.

As for the current team, junior guard D.J. Richardson said he believes it will remain intact as is.

“I think everyone’s staying right now,” Richardson said. “Everyone seems pretty humble and having a good work ethic.”

Richardson added he hopes Howard will remain on the coaching staff.

“I love coach Howard; he’s been there since I’ve been a freshman in high school.”

Groce studied mathematics at Taylor University. He also spent time as an assistant coach at Taylor, North Carolina State, Butler and Xavier. He and his wife, Allison, have two sons, who are all eager for the transition.

“We really felt like this was a great community, not only to grow a basketball program but also a family,” Groce said.

Photo and story via The Daily Illini

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