News Local/State

Illinois Fires Head Basketball Coach Groce

John Groce takes questions from the media at Memorial Stadium Saturday.

John Groce takes questions from the media at Memorial Stadium Saturday. Steve Morck/Illinois Public Media

John Groce has been fired as head coach of the Illini basketball team, effective immediately.  "Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois," said Athletic Director Josh Whitman.

In an afternoon press conference, Groce admitted he was suprised at the move.

Illinois lost 75-55 to Michigan Thursday, falling in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois has a record of 18-14.

Whitman also called Groce a "model leader", thanking him and his staff.

"He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy," Whitman said. "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."

Talking to reporters Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Whitman said the national process for finding a new coach will begin immediately, and starts with leadership.

"There's no magic formula to this stuff," he said. "You find that leader, you surround that leader with great resources, and then you give them the room to go off and do a good job. So it's imperative that we do that."

He the process that led to the hiring of Lovie Smith as head football coach "was a very unique situation", and there would be no announement coming on Monday regarding the basketball team's future, saying this search would be a more traditional one that would take time.

Whitman says the team's play "should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure."

Whitman says he understands what’s required be competitive as the search for a new coach begins, but he also says paying top dollar doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

“And so just because someone might be a $2-and half million coach doesn’t mean they’re any worse than a $4-and a half million coach," he said. "Let’s look at the substance behind the person before we hang a dollar figure on them, and equate that to how good they are.”

Assistant coach Jamall Walker has been appointed interim head coach, who will lead the Illini as the team takes on Valparaiso in the National Invitation Tournament at the State Farm Center Tuesday night. 

Groce said he wanted to coach in in the NIT, and said he plans to pray about his future.

"I'm not a guy who necessarily predicts future," he said. "But one thing I do know, I love competition, I love coaching, I love the game of basketball. More importantly than that, I love building relationships, impacting people, building teams, getting guys to understand what it takes, how hard they have to fight, and do that together. I enjoy that."

Whitman said the fact that he had Groce had become good friends made for a difficult day Saturday.

"The reality is, that if I had kept John at arm's length for this last year, today's decision would be a lot easier," he said. "But I would have had a lot worse time the last 365-some-odd days. On the whole, I would choose the way I do it, because I like all the other days, even though it makes this day tougher."

Groce averaged 19 wins per year in his five seasons at Illinois, compiling a 95-75 record overall and 37-53 in Big Ten play. In his first season in 2013, he led Illinois to 23 wins and an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 appearance.

The team followed with conseutive NIT bids in 2014 and 2015. He is 180-131 in nine seasons as a head coach, following an 85-56 record in four years at Ohio.

Groce has two years remaining on his contract and will receive the remaining $1.7 million due.