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 with 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 take over a team that has missed the tournament three of the past 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.”
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 surprised.
“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,” Illinois 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 planned to improve on, and said a national search for a replacement would 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 Thursday but didn’t yet know whether he could 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.”