The Free Press, Mankato, MN

NCAA Basketball

March 28, 2012

Illinois finalizing deal with Ohio’s Groce

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Despite an increasingly complicated negotiation process, a member of the Illinois board of trustees told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday night that the hiring of Ohio’s John Groce as the next men’s basketball coach is imminent.

Disagreement on terms of the contract has delayed the hiring the last few days, according to college basketball sources.

Differences in contract length and assistant coaches’ salaries have been the major obstacles in a deal being reached between Groce and Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. Groce, who has coached at the Mid-American Conference program since 2008, is asking for an average of $1.375 million annually over eight years ($11 million), while Illinois is offering about $1.2 million per year for a five- or six-year contract, sources said.

Groce makes about $300,000 per season and it has been reported the most Ohio can offer is $500,000 annually.

Groce also wants his top assistant to receive a salary on par with that of current Illinois interim coach Jerrance Howard, whose contract as an assistant runs through next season for $180,000 per year.

A flight scheduled to head from Champaign to Athens, Ohio, Tuesday was canceled when Groce introduced the demands that put a hitch in the process, sources said.

Thomas had told trustees he planned to have a coach in place before leaving Friday for the Final Four in New Orleans.

He did not acknowledge questions about the status of the hiring process at Wednesday’s news conference to introduce Matt Bollant as the women’s basketball coach.

Sources on Tuesday said some trustees stepped in to delay hiring, but another source with knowledge of the trustees’ interaction with Thomas said board member Lawrence Oliver had no part in delaying the process.

Oliver and fellow board member James Montgomery voted against the contract of football coach Tim Beckman to express their concern that Illinois never has hired an African-American football or basketball coach.

Montgomery told the Tribune on Tuesday that he knew little of Groce and described him as a “second-tier” candidate, but he said he was giving Thomas’ hiring process the “benefit of the doubt.”

Board Chairman Chris Kennedy said members had not interfered and he supported the hiring process. He did not offer a timeline.

“Just because it takes a little longer, it isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “(Thomas) is confident he will end up with someone who will do a great job at the university.”

Thomas initially struck out with Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, who chose to remain with their current teams rather than take deals sources said to be worth about $21 million over eight seasons.

Sources said Illinois showed interest in three other candidates before focusing on Groce, who led the Bobcats to two NCAA tournaments in four seasons, including a Sweet 16 run this season.

Thomas has shown consideration to Duke assistant Jeff Capel and former New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus, a source said, but they both would be considered long shot backup plans to Groce.

Bruce Weber, who coached Illinois for nine seasons, was fired March 9 after missing a third NCAA tournament in the five seasons.

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