Illinois head coach John Groce reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Washington. Michigan won 75-55. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Illini fire basketball coach John Groce after 5 seasons

SHARE Illini fire basketball coach John Groce after 5 seasons
SHARE Illini fire basketball coach John Groce after 5 seasons

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois basketball coach John Groce was fired Saturday after an 18-14 season in which his team was ninth in the Big Ten. The Illini made just one NCAA appearance in his five seasons at the school.

Assistant Jamall Walker was appointed interim coach while the school searches for a successor. Groce has two years left on his contract and will receive the balance, about $1.7 million.

“I’ve been evaluating the basketball program since I walked in the door a year ago. This wasn’t the culmination of one game. It wasn’t a single moment where, ‘This is it; this can’t continue,’ “ athletic director Josh Whitman said at a news conference. “It was an assessment that has been ongoing for a long time. I made the decision today.”

Groce was considered one of the nation’s hot coaches when he was hired in March 2012. He left Ohio University after coaching the Bobcats to an 85-56 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons.

In five seasons at Illinois, Groce was 95-75 overall and 37-53 in Big Ten play. The Illini were 8-10 in the conference this season, ending the regular season with a loss to last-place Rutgers. They lost 75-55 to Michigan in their conference tournament opener.

“I take responsibility for everything,” Groce said at the news conference. “Have there been some challenges over the five years that maybe were outside our control here and there? Yeah. I always told the staff and taught the players that you point the finger at yourself when you’re a leader.”

The lone NCAA appearance for Illinois under Groce came in his first year. Then things got worse the next four seasons. The wins dropped from 23 to 20 to 19 to 15 from the 2012-13 season to 2015-16. The postseason was the same story: The Illini went to the NCAA round of 32 his first season and two NIT appearances followed. They did not play in a postseason tournament last season.

The last time Illinois missed the NCAA Tournament four straight years was from 1976-80. The Illini likely will get an NIT bid Sunday.

“They’ve got (more) basketball to play this season, and there won’t be a bigger fan of those guys than me,” Groce said.

Groce said he had wanted to coach the team in the postseason.

“But that was not my choice,” he said.

Whitman said it was imperative to let Groce go now instead of waiting until after the postseason.

“We’re in a very competitive marketplace,” Whitman said. “This is essentially a game of musical chairs and we don’t want to be the person left standing when the music stops in terms of identifying our next head coach. We needed to put ourselves in the right position to go out and move aggressively to identity who that coach might be.”

Groce followed two coaches who had enormous success at Illinois. Bill Self went 78-24 and left to take over at Kansas. Bruce Weber followed, went 210-101 and was honored as national coach of the year in 2005 when he took the Illini to the national championship game for the first time.

Whitman said he remembered those glory years as an undergraduate and law student at Illinois.

“I was here 10 years ago and saw the energy. I felt the environment at State Farm Center,” he said. “You couldn’t find a ticket. Every game was an event, every fan was in an orange shirt. The waiting list was thousands of people long to get a season ticket… That was 10 years ago. If we’re not careful, it’ll be 30 years ago. That’s what I can’t allow to happen.”

Average attendance was 12,107 this season, the lowest since 1977-78 and down 20 percent since 2013-14. The decline was a factor in the decision, Whitman said, but not “a driving force.”

Whitman went with a big name when he hired a new football coach two days after taking the job in early March 2016 — Lovie Smith, the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach. Smith signed a six-year contract worth $21 million, including $2 million a year for the first two seasons.

Whitman said another splash hire is possible.

“We understand what’s necessary to be competitive in today’s environment,” he said, “and we’re willing to do what we need to do on the financial side to be sure we get the best coach for our program.”

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