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Athletic director Whitman, former men’s basketball head coach Groce address media

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Former Men's Basketball coach John Groce at today's press conference.

Former Men's Basketball coach John Groce at today's press conference.

Elisabeth Neely

Elisabeth Neely

Former Men's Basketball coach John Groce at today's press conference.

By Lucas Wright, Staff writer

Two days removed from the Illinois men’s basketball team’s 20-point loss against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament, Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman made the move many expected to come in the offseason: firing head coach John Groce on Saturday

Whitman said the decision had to be made so that Illinois can get back up to the high expectations of the storied basketball program.

“For us we have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and National Championships year-in and year out,” Whitman said. “I was here at the peak, I was here ten years ago. I saw the energy; I felt the environment at the State Farm Center… That’s what we’re striving for.”

Whitman said he made his decision Thursday, but he decided to act Saturday.

He met with Groce around 1 p.m., before announcing officially Groce’s firing just before 3 p.m.

Groce was on hand for Saturday’s press conference, giving him one last chance to address the media. He said he was unaware that his job was on the line until he received the decision from Whitman.

“Obviously, a lot of different thoughts over the past few hours as you try to digest all of it, but the one thing, I’ve certainly told my wife this, I unequivocally feel like this is a much better place than when we started March 29, 2012,” Groce said. “You start by pointing the finger at yourself and you take responsibility for everything when you’re a leader, and so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Whitman said the coaching search begins immediately, but not to expect as quick a turnover as with the Lovie Smith hiring. He stated this search will be a “process” and will be more like a traditional coaching search, but Illinois will not use a search firm in the process.

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

Some concern had been raised over the incoming recruiting class for the Illini, as Illinois sports the ninth overall recruiting class in the nation, and the incoming group has not been shy with its support for former coach Groce.

Whitman said he contacted each of the recruits this afternoon, and plans on speaking with each of them this weekend.

Jamall Walker will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season, as the Illini prepare for a likely spot in the NIT tournament.

Despite his firing, Groce said he will still be rooting for his former players.

“There’s not going to be anyone that’s a bigger fan of those guys than me,” Groce said. “They’ve got to come out and fight, and I am confident they will.”

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