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It's official: Groce is gone

After four years at the helm of the Ohio University men's basketball team, head coach John Groce has left the program to take the same job at the University of Illinois.

Groce has agreed to coach the Fighting Illini. Details of the financial incentives and duration of the contract were not immediately available.

"We felt like this would be a great community not only for a basketball program but also to raise our family," Groce said. 

Illinois had offered Butler coach Brad Stevens $2.6 million per year throughout eight years and Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart $2.5 million per year.

Groce had a base contract of $300,000 per year at Ohio and earned $55,000 in bonuses this season, a year in which the Bobcats made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964.

The university had begun reaching out to alumni and donors in an attempt to keep Groce in Athens. OU never presented Groce with a formal offer, though.

Groce has been at the helm for three of the program's eight career NCAA Tournament wins. His winning percentage with the Bobcats is the second-highest in team history among coaches who spent more than two years in Athens.

Groce has Big Ten experience from his days as an assistant under Ohio State coach Thad Matta. He also has experience with big-city recruiting, as his entire starting lineup hails from areas with high metropolitan populations. Guard D.J. Cooper, who hails from Chicago, chose Athens and Groce despite offers to play at larger programs.   

"He understands the culture, he understands the conference," Illinois Athletics Director Mike Thomas said. "He understands Champaign … I believe he will be a big success."

Groce's relocation comes a week after his team's exit from the NCAA Tournament.

The Bobcats defeated Big Ten co-champion Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance. The Fighting Illini lost two games to the Wolverines this season by a combined 20 points. That was the only official common opponent for the two schools, though Ohio reportedly played Ohio State in a preseason “secret scrimmage.”

"I can't thank (the OU players) enough. I love those kids, and they'll always be a part of this family," Groce said.

OU and Groce reached an agreement on a contract extension two years ago that kept him under contract in Athens through the 2014–15 season. As part of the agreement, Groce and Athletic Director Jim Schaus are supposed to meet at the end of each season and “discuss potential contract enhancements.”

Groce must pay Ohio a $200,000 fee for terminating his contract.

Early speculation about Groce's successor has hinged around Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals, a 1995 OU graduate who played point guard on the 1994 Mid-American Conference champion team. Boals started his coaching career as an assistant in Athens during the 1995–96 season.

Former Bobcat star and former NBA player Gary Trent has expressed interest in joining the Bobcat coaching staff, if Boals is selected, as an assistant.

Current Ohio assistant Dustin Ford also might be considered for the position. Ford, a 2001 OU graduate, was a four-year starter at guard. Ford became an assistant at Ohio when Groce was named head coach before the 2008–09 season.

“(The) search could involve some of our assistant coaches. It could involve coaches from elsewhere,” OU President Roderick McDavis said earlier today. “And certainly our athletics director would be leading the search for our basketball coach.”

Ford's experience also includes three years at Western Carolina under former Bobcat coach Larry Hunter. Ford is the brother of Geno Ford, who became head coach at Bradley University after three years at Kent State.

Groce added in a news conference Thursday that some of his current staff at OU will join him at his new gig.

"There will be some guys coming with me from Ohio," he said.

At a press conference of his own, Ohio Athletic Director Jim Schaus said that the school would start looking for a new head coach immediately and that he anticipates the search process taking seven to 10 days.

Schaus added that the team was disappointed, but took the news of Groce's departure well.

"They understand it's part of the process, part of the business," he said.

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