A smiling John Groce walked up to the podium at the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall Thursday wearing a shiny new “I” pin just days after sporting one that read “OHIO.” The orange on his striped tie matched the background behind him but clashed with the hunter green that he had donned for four seasons.
And then came the final touch: not a Bobcat hat, but a Fighting Illini cap to crown him the new head coach of Illinois men’s basketball. Hundreds of media members and fans gathered in Assembly Hall to welcome him to Champaign, Ill.
Nearly 375 miles away, Ohio Athletics Director Jim Schaus wore the more familiar green-and-white tie and addressed a much smaller contingent in The Convo to evaluate the state of Bobcat men’s basketball.
But Schaus’ words did little to cheer up the Bobcats or their fans, who struggled to grasp the fact that Groce was gone a mere six days after the Bobcats wrapped up their magical season.
“Just speechless, really,” sophomore guard Ricardo Johnson said Thursday morning after Groce said goodbye to his team before flying to Illinois to publicly accept his position. Every player on Ohio’s current roster came to Athens during Groce’s tenure.
“It was hard. Hard meeting,” Groce said. “Those kids, like I said, I love them. That will never change. Those kids mean a lot to me. That was the hardest part of it.”
The announcement was particularly tough for junior guard Walter Offutt, who has known Groce since his eighth-grade year. Groce recruited Offutt to Ohio State while he was an assistant coach with the Buckeyes, and Offutt later followed him to Athens.
“He told us to stick together as much as possible,” Offutt said. “I can’t really remember a lot right now because I have a lot going through my mind. That’s one thing he told us: try to stick together.”
Groce said Illinois Athletics Director Mike Thomas approached him about the job Sunday. He interviewed Monday and then negotiated his contract Tuesday and Wednesday. The deal was finalized late Wednesday night.
Groce agreed to a five-year contract worth $1.4 million a year to coach the Fighting Illini. He made $300,000 a year with Ohio and earned another $55,000 in bonuses for his team’s performance this season. Ohio University administrators raised funds to give Groce a raise if he stayed, but Schaus, who congratulated Groce on his new opportunity, said the university never had a formal counteroffer.
“We have reached out to alumni and friends, and they have responded very generously to our request,” OU president Roderick McDavis said. “This recent success in our men’s basketball program has really energized the alumni base of our university.”
Ohio Athletics did not immediately provide the number of donors or amount raised for the cause.
Ohio’s search to replace Groce is underway and could be complete in as little as a week, Schaus said, adding that the program will continue to build on its success even as its former coach moves on.
“Our vision is bigger than this. It’s much higher,” he said. “I can’t wait for the next iteration of that.”
Schaus said the university is open to current Division I head and assistant coaches, including those already on the Bobcats’ staff. But at least some assistant coaches might join Groce in Champaign.
“There will be some guys coming with me from Ohio,” Groce said. “That’s in flux a little bit depending on their coaching situation going forward.”
Under Groce’s guidance, the 2011 –12 Bobcats set a program record with 29 wins and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964. In his four seasons, Groce compiled an 85-56 record, good for the second-highest winning percentage among coaches who led the Bobcats for more than two years.