Illinois AD: Had to fire John Groce now in 'competitive marketplace'

Illinois has fired coach John Groce after five seasons, the school announced Saturday.

Groce went 95-75 overall during his time in Champaign, including a 37-53 record in the Big Ten. Under Groce, the Fighting Illini never finished above seventh in the Big Ten and went 18-14 (8-10) this season.

Assistant coach Jamall Walker will serve as interim head coach while the school searches for a successor.

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

Groce, 45, took over the Fighting Illini program after leading Ohio to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012. He went to an NCAA tournament in his first season at Illinois, beating Colorado before falling to Miami in the second round.

Groce wasn't able to get Illinois back to the NCAA tournament, though, failing to finish above .500 in Big Ten play in any of his five seasons with Illinois.

The Fighting Illini made NIT appearances in 2014 and 2015. They were on the bubble heading down the stretch this season, but lost in the regular-season finale to Rutgers and then fell by 20 to Michigan in their first game of the Big Ten tournament.

"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 Illini are likely to get an NIT bid on Sunday. Groce said he wanted to coach the team in the postseason, but added, "That was not my choice."

"They've got [more] basketball to play this season, and there won't be a bigger fan of those guys than me," he said.

Groce signed a contract extension in 2014 that ran through 2019. He will receive the remaining balance on his deal, approximately $1.7 million.

Whitman explained why he fired Groce now instead of waiting until after the postseason.

"We're in a very competitive marketplace," he 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 identify who that coach might be."

Groce was the head coach at Ohio for four seasons, reaching the NCAA tournament on two occasions. He was an assistant at Ohio State, Xavier, Butler, NC State and Taylor University, an NAIA school.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.