By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - 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
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,
Asked about skepticism among some fans and others - after
Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens
passed up chances to take over at Illinois - Groce said he wasn't
"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
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
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
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
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.