Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series about Ohio Athletics personnel in their fourth years at Ohio University.
The fourth year of a college coach’s tenure brings more accountability.
Except when a team has a redshirt senior, the fourth year marks the first time a coach has only his recruits on the roster. Any success or failure falls squarely on the coach and the players he brought into the program.
The fourth year also has implications with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate report, which is based on a four-year average of athletes’ academic eligibility and retention. The report can lead to honors, a reprimand or even the loss of scholarships and postseason eligibility.
The 2008-09 school year was a whirlwind time for Ohio Athletics. A new athletics director took office and four head coaches took charge of Bobcat teams. This year marks that group’s fourth year in those jobs.
John Groce took over the men’s basketball program July 30, 2008, and had less than a week to get acclimated before the recruiting season began. Unlike many new coaches, he inherited a program that had a winning record the previous four seasons.
In Groce’s first season, the Bobcats broke the streak and finished below .500. The past two seasons, though, the team has posted winning records.
The 2009-10 season, Groce’s second, included an unexpected run through the Mid-American Conference Tournament to gain a berth in the NCAA tournament, where Ohio upset third-seeded Georgetown.
The past three years have been filled with highs and lows, but the March Madness mayhem does not top Groce’s list of accomplishments with the Bobcats.
“The high for me would be looking at where we were when we started in a lot of areas and where we are now,” he said. “In certain areas of your program you may need to take two steps backward to take three steps forward.”
The backward steps included the losing record during Groce’s first season and a handful of off-court incidents. Four of former coach Tim O’Shea’s recruits — Mike Harris, Allen Hester, Maurice Pearson and Bert Whittington IV — left the program before Groce’s first season.
Players with at least a 2.6 GPA who transfer to another program do not hurt Ohio’s APR report, but those who transfer with lower grades or drop classes and quit the team cause the figure to fall.
“Those guys are the ones that affect it the most. I’m not going to mention names, but four of the five … weren’t here,” Groce said. “I didn’t coach them. I didn’t recruit them. I don’t know who they are.”
One of Groce’s players who affected the APR was Armon Bassett, who was arrested and charged with assault in May 2010. He left the program for the NBA Draft following the 2009-10 season, but was not selected.
Ohio’s four-year average APR score fell during Groce’s first two seasons. A score of 948 bested the national average during O’Shea’s final year, but the average fell to 934 after Groce took over. The program lost a scholarship after posting a four-year average score of 910 for the 2009-10 season, during which it beat Georgetown. The national average has climbed 12 points, to 945, during that two-year span.
“I’m ultimately responsible, and we’ve got to be a steward of what we’re given. But two of those four years, I was not the coach,” Groce said. “We had a low APR score in one of the two years that I was coach, and we also had a good APR score in one of the two years I was also the head coach.”
The 2010-11 report will not be released until spring.
The NCAA recently decided to prohibit any team with a four-year average below 930 from competing in postseason play. Ohio will have to bring its figure above the threshold before the policy is enforced, which could be as early as the 2014-15 school year.
Groce said he is trying to restore the culture of Ohio basketball. Included in that culture, he said, are academics, citizenship and on-court play.
The team is doing better academically, Groce said. The players had a combined 2.8 GPA for Spring Quarter and a 3.0 GPA for their summer classes — well above minimum NCAA expectations.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet, but I’m very proud of our APR score, which hasn’t been recorded yet,” he said.
As far as citizenship, no news is often good news. Groce said his players have grasped the concept and are acting more responsibly than some have in the past.
“I always want what’s best for them, and sometimes I wonder if we could have gotten more out of student-athlete A or student-athlete B,” he said. “Not necessarily more out of them basketball-wise, but more out of them as a person and a student equally as much as the basketball piece.
“Citizenship-wise, we’ve been really good here the last year or so. Sometimes we went through some rocky times there my second year, and I kind of figured out in what direction we’re going to go.”
That direction is reflected in Groce’s recruiting. Though he said the type of player he looks for has not changed, he now takes into account whether the student-athlete can succeed in a place such as Athens.
“I’m one of those guys that believes this place and this program is for certain people,” he said. “It’s not for everybody.”
Incoming freshman recruit Joe Mitchell decided to look for a school closer to his hometown of Wichita, Kan. He took classes at OU this summer, but is not enrolled for Fall Quarter. Media Relations declined comment on whether his departure would affect the 2011-2012 APR report.
This year’s team had its first meeting Tuesday, at which Groce emphasized how the APR report works and the importance of raising the score.
“Everyone has goals and dreams of playing in the postseason,” he said. “I thought it was important that I educate them and talk a little more about it going into this year than last year.”
Groce now has only his recruits on the roster for the first time, none of whom are seniors. Despite that, this team has more playing experience than his past squads.
“I expect more out of these guys now,” he said. “They’ve been here. They know what we want. They know how we do things.”