The Illinois Fighting Illini will be searching for a new head basketball coach this Spring. According to university press release, athletic director Josh Whitman has fired John Groce after the conclusion of yet another disappointing season in Champaign. During his five years with the Orange and Blue, Groce led the program to an overall record of 95-75 (.558) and one NCAA Tournament appearance.
According to the full press release, assistant coach Jamall Walker has been elevated to the role of interim head coach.
Statement from Josh Whitman:
"I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years. In many ways, John is a model leader. He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy. He has the highest integrity. He has been an active presence in our community and a strong public ambassador for Illinois Basketball. Most importantly, he loves his players unconditionally and helps them develop into young men prepared for the next stages of their lives. Our student-athletes are having a positive experience, achieving record heights in the classroom, and leaving campus as proud graduates with bright futures.
Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois. But that should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure. We wish John, Allison, and their three children nothing but the best, and we thank his staff and their families as well for their many contributions to our program. All will be missed."
Groce’s tenure, while injected with marginal success, was also riddled with long conference losing streaks. His overall Big Ten record finishes at 37-53 (.411), and his road conference record is an even-worse 14-31 (.311). He never managed to take the Illini to a better conference record than 9-9, and never finished higher than eighth place in the Big Ten standings. He suffered a whopping thirteen conference losses by twenty-or-more points, a record for an Illinois head coach, including nine in just the past two seasons. Perhaps most startlingly of all, Groce never managed to defeat Wisconsin in his five years in Champaign. He racked up at least one win over every other Big Ten school, including newly-added Maryland and Rutgers.
Despite these numbers, Groce’s enthusiasm and success at Ohio made him look like a good pick when former AD Mike Thomas announced his hire back in 2012 to replace Bruce Weber. Illinois had primarily been pursuing the likes of Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart at the time, but the program’s sights eventually landed on Groce, who had just completed a surprise Sweet Sixteen run with the Bobcats. While the Indiana native was considered to be a relatively unqualified candidate for the job at the time, it was clear that he could bring a renewed sense of energy to campus.
And he did just that during his first season in Champaign. Groce guided Weber’s remaining veterans to Maui Invitational title and No. 10 national ranking during non-conference play. The Fighting Illini hit rough stretch at the beginning of Big Ten play, although they rebounded with a shocking home upset of No. 1 Indiana to get their season back on track. Illinois ultimately finished the year at 23-13 (8-10) after earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they narrowly fell to No. 2 seed Miami (FL) in the Second Round.
Year 2 featured a great deal of turnover as Groce began to put his mark on the roster. The first full recruiting class of Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Maverick Morgan, Austin Colbert, and Jaylon Tate arrived on campus, immediately sparking a youth movement in the process. Of course, Illinois mostly struggled this year due to their inexperienced roster, but they still managed a respectable 20-15 (7-11) record, which included wins over UNLV, Indiana and Michigan State. The Illini were invited to the NIT but dropped a close game to Clemson in the second round to end their season.
It was during the 2013-14 season that recruiting news began to completely overshadow just about everything being done on the court. Groce, a noted strong recruiter dating back to his time as an assistant at Ohio State, had propelled Illinois into the conversation for several highly-touted prospects. Unfortunately, he was never quite able to seal the deal on top targets like Cliff Alexander, Quinten Snider, Jalen Brunson, and Jawun Evans. Guys like Alexander and Snider could’ve drastically changed the program’s outlook, but after swinging and missing with those prospects Groce was essentially forced take advantage of the transfer market.
Year 3 under Groce got off to another promising start, as the Illini posted quality wins against Baylor and Missouri in the non-conference season to begin the year at 10-3. Transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby looked like they would be promising additions to the roster, but unfortunately neither had a successful campaign. After a lackluster 3-5 start to conference play, it was announced that Illinois had suspended both Cosby and Rayvonte Rice for violating team conduct policies. Rice then injured his hand in practice, and wasn’t able to return until mid-February. Cosby eventually transferred for a second time at the end of the season. Amongst this slew of injuries and suspensions, the Illini stumbled to a 19-12 regular season finish and another NIT bid before dropping blowout games to Michigan and Alabama to end their year.
Year 4 was probably the most tumultuous year under Groce given the never-ending series of injuries the team suffered. Leron Black never played all year and fellow big man Mike Thorne Jr. only managed to be healthy for a small number of games. Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate both ran into trouble with the law after on-campus incidents, and Nunn also missed time due to the birth of his son. On top of the mounting list of injuries and absences, the Illini had to play in Springfield for the first five games of the year due to the State Farm Center renovations. Illinois, led by Malcolm Hill and pretty much no one else, managed to squeak out wins over Purdue and Rutgers (in triple overtime), but they finished with a disappointing 15-19 record and no postseason berth.
Fast forward to this season, which is Year 5 under Groce. The Illini projected to have a deep and experienced roster with the return of Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. as well as the addition of freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Most figured this would be Groce’s return to the NCAA tournament, but the season did not go as predicted. The Illini once again started off with a strong non-conference record (minus an overtime loss at home to tournament-bound Winthrop) at 10-3. Wins over BYU, NC State and VCU were good resume-builders. But, as has become custom for Illinois teams under John Groce, the Orange and Blue struggled out of the gates in Big Ten play and fell to a 3-8 conference record by early February. The Illini managed to go on a late run to improve their Big Ten Tournament seed, but they were once again bounced out of the 8-9 game in blowout fashion by the Michigan Wolverines. The team now sits at 18-14, and while it still has the potential for an NIT bid, this season can’t be considered anything less than a huge disappointment given the talent and experience Groce had on his roster entering the 2016-17 campaign. Rumors of Groce’s time in Champaign coming to a close swirled all season long, but Josh Whitman never spoke publicly about the matter until today.
One of the presumable reasons why the decision was a difficult one to make was the 2017 recruiting class. Headlined by five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon (IL), the Fighting Illini have a top ten national group scheduled to reach campus this Summer. It’s unclear if any of those players will begin to seek out other options, but it should be noted that all four players have signed Letters of Intent. However, when a coach is fired the school is more or less obligated to let any of the recruits out of their commitments if they so choose. The fate of this class will really depend on who Whitman and the Illini plan on bringing in. Additionally, the next head coach will also have two open scholarships to use immediately on the 2017-18 squad, as well as possibly one or two more scholarships if players like D.J. Williams or Aaron Jordan decide to transfer.
This post will continue to be updated with more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, check out our 2017 Coaching Carousel Story Stream, which features in-depth profiles of over a dozen potential candidates for the Illinois job. What are your thoughts on Groce’s dismissal? Who do you think should be the next head coach? Drop by in the comments below to let us know your thoughts!