What has been anticipated for a few days became reality Thursday as Illinois named Ohio’s John Groce as its men’s basketball coach. Will it be a good hire? A bad hire? Who knows? It’s absurd to draw a conclusion on something like that on the day of an introductory press conference. But a few things are without dispute.
No. 1: The hiring process has come under great scrutiny, as the search seemingly lingered as other targets rejected overtures from Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. That has caused angst among many fans and media pundits, who feel it hasn’t been a smooth process.
No. 2: Groce is a proven coach with a promising future who is ready to take this next step. And—How about this?—he actually wanted the job.
Make no mistake about it: Illinois is a terrific position. It always has been, no matter what you may have read in recent weeks. Is it Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, UCLA or North Carolina? No. But history has shown you can be a Big Ten power and compete for the national championship in Champaign.
Groce knows that. And Groce is a fit. And that’s why he’s here. He’s a Midwest guy, being born in the hometown of Purdue coach Matt Painter: Muncie, Ind. And Groce played high school ball in Danville, Ind., for Todd Lickliter.
Just as new Illinois football coach Tim Beckman wasn’t the first choice of Thomas, Groce wasn’t the top target to replace Bruce Weber. Thomas was rebuffed by VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens—and South Florida’s Stan Heath, Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Washington’s Lorenzo Romar supposedly waved off feelers from Illinois–before landing Groce, who like Beckman (Toledo) hails from a MAC school (Ohio).
First choice, second choice … 15th choice. Who cares? Illinois got a good coach in Groce, who began his career as an assistant at his alma mater Taylor in Indiana (1993-96) and N.C. State (1996-2000).
Groce, 40, cut his teeth under Ohio State’s Thad Matta, working as an assistant at Butler (2000-01), Xavier (2001-04) and Ohio State (2004-08) before taking over Ohio. Along the way, Groce proved to be a strong recruiter, getting credit for luring the likes of Greg Oden and Mike Conley to Ohio State. And that duo led the Buckeyes to the 2007 national title game.
In four seasons at Ohio, Groce forged an 85-56 mark overall, 34-30 in the MAC, winning conference tourney titles in 2010 and 2012. In 2010, Groce guided the No. 14-seed Bobcats to a first-round upset of No. 3-seed Georgetown in the NCAA tourney before falling to Tennessee.
This past tourney, Groce led No. 13-seed Ohio to the Sweet 16 by dumping No. 4-seed Michigan and No. 12-seed South Florida before falling to No. 1-seed North Carolina. The Bobcats, who finished 29-8, were led by guard D.J. Cooper, a top talent that Groce lured from Chicago, which is where he will have to recruit often as Illinois coach.
Groce takes over for Weber, who was let go a day after the Fighting Illini lost to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tourney. Despite finishing 17-15 (6-12 Big Ten), Illinois received no postseason bid from the NIT.
Weber leaves Champaign with a 210-101 mark in nine seasons after arriving from Southern Illinois in 2003-04 after Bill Self left Champaign to coach Kansas.
Weber’s first three seasons in Champaign were his best. He forged an 89-16 overall record and a 39-9 Big Ten mark with two league championships, a Sweet 16 appearance and a trip to the national championship game in 2005. But the last six seasons have seen a decline.
Since that torrid start under Weber, Illinois finished no better than second in the Big Ten and made just three NCAA appearances with an NIT berth. Illinois failed to advance beyond the second round in any of its final three Big Dance appearances.
Groce will inherit a deep Illinois roster that includes non-seniors like Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, Tyler Griffey and Meyers Leonard—among others.
How many will return? Who knows? Groce will sort through that while building a staff for an Illinois program which could be a factor in the Big Ten as soon as next season.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com and will post his Daily Links on weekdays. You can subscribe to the Daily Links RSS here, find Dienhart’s work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his overall RSS feed.