Despite mutual personal admiration, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman ended his professional relationship with basketball coach John Groce. The Illini AD announced on Saturday that he has dismissed Groce after five underwhelming, frustrating seasons at Illinois.
The numbers showed that Groce simply didn't produce enough, and the boss brought in to fix Illini athletics' issues couldn't justify bringing him back.
Groce will be paid a $1.7 million buyout, and assistant Jamall Walker has been elevated to interim head coach. Illinois announced "a national search for the next head coach will begin immediately."
“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Whitman said in a statement. “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 finished his five-year tenure with a 95-75 overall record (.559 winning percentage) and 37-53 Big Ten regular season record (.411). Groce led the Illini to just one NCAA Tournament appearance during his tenure and that was in 2013, his first season at Illinois. The Illini never finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten in Groce's five seasons and haven't made an NCAA Tournament for four straight seasons, the first time that has happened at Illinois since 1980.
Those numbers are worse than the man he replaced. During his last five seasons of his nine-year tenure, Bruce Weber -- who led Illinois to two Big Ten titles and a national championship runner-up finish in his first two seasons -- went 98-73 overall and 41-49 in the Big Ten with two NCAA Tournament appearances.
After starting this season 14-12 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten, Groce led the Illini to a late-season surge -- as he did in 2013, 2014 and 2015, as well -- winning five of seven games to get on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But the Illini's third loss to Michigan in four years at the Big Ten Tournament sank any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Groce is recruiting as well as he ever has at Illinois, signing a class that currently ranks No. 9 in the Scout team rankings. Five-star East St. Louis center Jeremiah Tilmon is the headliner, along with top-100 point guard Trent Frazier out of Wellington (Fla.). The Illini also signed four-star Peoria Manual guard DaMonte Williams (son of Illini great Frank Williams) and three-star Belleville East guard Javon Pickett