CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — John Groce took the Ohio Bobcats farther in the NCAA tournament than they had been in nearly 50 years.
He will now get a chance to bring that level of success back to a Big Ten team.
An official at the University of Illinois confirmed Thursday that the school has hired Groce as its next men’s basketball coach, replacing the fired Bruce Weber. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the move had not been announced, said Groce will be introduced at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
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 16 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. 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 post season altogether.
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 Grant 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.
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 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.
When athletic director Mike 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 hitting 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.