Illini Tab Former Matta Assistant as New Coach
By Ben Axelrod
Seven years ago, a win over undefeated and No. 1-ranked Illinois helped jumpstart Thad Matta’s reboot of the Ohio State basketball program. Today, the Fighting Illini are turning to one of Matta’s former assistants to spearhead a restart of their own.
As a result, one of Matta’s current assistants could also be on the move.
Illinois announced on Wednesday that John Groce, who was most recently the head coach at Ohio University and one of Matta’s top assistants at OSU from 2004-08, will take over as the 17th head coach in program history.
“I am extremely pleased to introduce John Groce as our men's basketball coach,” Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas said in a statement.
“It became very clear during the process that John is a terrific fit at the University of Illinois. He has won at a high level wherever he has coached and he has some great mentors.”
The Illini job was vacated on March 9, when former coach Bruce Weber was fired following a 17-15 season and a first round exit in the Big Ten Tournament. Groce emerged as a candidate this week after the school failed in attempts to hire Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens.
He said he was contacted Sunday by Illinois, interviewed Monday and the two sides negotiated for two days before Groce was officially offered the job on Wednesday. It did not take him long to accept the offer.
“I am thrilled to be the basketball coach here and feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our family,” Groce said in a statement.
“The Midwest background and values we share makes this University of Illinois a perfect for us and we're looking forward to making an impact on the basketball court as well as in the Champaign-Urbana community.”
Groce, 40, is fresh off an improbable Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament that saw his No. 13-seeded Bobcats knock off No. 4-seed Michigan and No. 12-seed Southern Florida before falling in overtime to No. 1-seed North Carolina.
Over the course of his four seasons in Athens, Groce compiled an 85-56 record, which included two MAC Tournament championships and three NCAA Tournament game victories. In 2010, Ohio pulled off a stunning upset of No. 3-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Prior to his time at Ohio University, Groce was an assistant to Matta for seven years, joining him at Butler, Xavier, and Ohio State. During his time in Columbus, Groce became known for his recruiting capabilities and was the lead assistant responsible for bringing high school All-Americans and eventual first round picks Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. to Ohio State.
“I look forward to competing against him,” Groce said of Matta, “but he and I are really good friends. He's a part of what I call my ‘advisory board.’”
In a Jan. 2012 interview, former OSU center B.J. Mullens expressed regret over not transferring to Ohio to play for Groce, and one of the Bobcats’ top players this season, Walter Offutt, was originally recruited to play for OSU by Groce.
Groce will reportedly make $1.4 million per year at Illinois with a five-year contract.
As was the case in 2008, when Groce took over for Tim O’Shea, the job opening at Ohio University could result in Matta losing another member of his staff. Sources have indicated to The-Ozone that current OSU assistant Jeff Boals is atop the list of Ohio’s desired replacements for Groce.
Boals, who has been an assistant at OSU since 2009, played for the Bobcats from 1992-95 and was a two-year captain during his time in Athens. Known as one of Matta’s top current recruiters, Boals got his coaching start as an assistant for Ohio in the 1995-96 season.
He is currently in New Orleans with Matta and the Buckeyes, who face Kansas Saturday night in an NCAA semifinal game at the Super Dome.
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