National signing day is done and dusted, fax machines are back to collecting dust until next first Wednesday of February. We’ve already discussed the biggest recruits for every Big Ten team, but just because they were the biggest doesn’t make them the most important.
Sometimes it’s the 2-star guy who is a developmental project that can turn the class in to a winner. Other times it’s the 5-star stud that everyone was raving about, and there are players in between who become the most important member of a class. Heck, sometimes it just means there’s a massive need at a specific position.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the most important recruit for every Big Ten west team.
Whitman dips in to his past in hiring Nancy Fahey to lead Illini women’s basketball program
Josh Whitman came to the University of Illinois from Washington University in St. Louis. It was a massive step up the collegiate ladder, going from Division III to Division I.
So if anyone knows what it takes to make that kind of a jump it is Whitman. On Wednesday, Whitman dipped in to that past in order to re-build the Illinois Fighting Illini as he hired Hall of Fame coach Nancy Fahey.
Fahey comes with plenty of experience, coaching at Washington University for 31 years. That includes five national championships and over 740 wins in her career.
“It gives me great pride to welcome my friend and former colleague Nancy Fahey to the Fighting Illini family as the new head coach of our women’s basketball program,” Whitman said. “With a record highlighted by five national championships, 10 Final Fours, nearly 740 wins, and a winning percentage of almost 85%, Nancy’s Hall of Fame coaching career stands among the most accomplished in the history of women’s basketball.”
The Illini program was desperate for a culture change after scandal and multiple transfers rocked the program over the last few years. Whitman’s knowledge of exactly how Fahey runs a program appears to have played a key role in making this hire.
“What is more compelling to me, however, is her ability to connect with the women on her team, to push them to be better than they ever thought possible, and to help them develop as players, students, and people. Nancy Fahey is a born leader, and she is the among the best basketball coaches I have ever seen. I could not be more excited for her to lead our Fighting Illini program to championship heights.”
She has a long line of success outside of those five national championships, making the NCAA DIII tournament in 29 of 31 years. The last title at Washington University came in 2010 as well. Fahey is also the fastest coach in NCAA history to 600 wins, coming in 704 games.
“It is such an exciting time in Illinois athletics since Josh has taken the helm,” Fahey said in the press release. “Having worked with Josh, I know he believes in doing things with integrity and the right way; I believe in the same things. I want to be a part of helping his vision become a reality.
“The cornerstone for the success I have experienced in the past has always revolved around the players. Knowing them as people and understanding their dreams and goals both on and off the court are important to me. I truly believe the players who are here and those who have committed to Illinois for next year have the ability to propel us to great heights. They want to be that team that we talk about five years from now. I want to help make that happen for them and for Illinois. Ultimately, we want every little girl, when she is growing up, to dream about Illinois as a place they want to play their college basketball.”
Illinois finished this last season 9-22 overall and just 3-13 in Big Ten play.
No doubt the hire of Fahey is going to be interesting, as the jump in talent and level of play is so drastic from D3 to D1 basketball, let alone to the level that is expected out of the Big Ten.
WATCH: Brad Underwood speaks for 1st time as Illini head coach
The University of Illinois took less than one day to get their man, as Brad Underwood bolted from Oklahoma State a day after his now-ex team was ousted from the NCAA tournament.
Underwood won’t formally be introduced until a noon CT press conference on Monday, but he was already in Champaign on Saturday. That meant his first official interview took place as well.
It was all caught on camera and here is what Underwood and Josh Whitman had to say regarding the hire.
Whitman wastes little time, picks Brad Underwood to head Illini basketball program
Brad Underwood was coaching the Oklahoma State Cowboys just about this time yesterday. Fast forward 24 hours and Josh Whitman got his next head coach thanks to the Pokes loss to Michigan.
According to reports, Underwood has agreed to terms to become the next head coach at the University of Illinois.
“I am excited to welcome Brad Underwood, his wife Susan, and their three children to the Fighting Illini family,” Whitman said in a press release. “In searching for a new coach, we were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball.
“Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness. They have a tremendous energy that I believe will ignite the Orange Krush and our fans to once again make State Farm Center one of the most intimidating venues in all of college basketball.”
Underwood has a long reputation of building quality programs. He took Stephen F. Austin to three straight NCAA tournaments before taking the Oklahoma State job this past year.
So, why leave the Pokes after just one season? It appears his ties to the state of Illinois were a huge factor in this quick of a jump.
“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said. “The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation.”
Underwood was an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992-2003 before taking his second head coaching gig at Daytona Beach Community College.
There are also reports of a strained relationship between Underwood and Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder.
Underwood will be introduced to the media on Monday at noon CT and we will have live coverage.
John Groce is actually out as Illini basketball coach
What many have been calling for finally happened — the University of Illinois has relieved John Groce of his duties as men’s basketball head coach.
Groce undoubtedly turned around the program academically and socially, something that made this decision difficult to make for athletic director Josh Whitman.
“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Whitman said in a press release announcing Groce’s firing. “In many ways, John is a model leader. He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy. He has the highest integrity. He has been an active presence in our community and a strong public ambassador for Illinois Basketball.”
Ultimately it was the record on the court that did Groce in. After all, coaches are hired to ensure their teams win games. All the other stuff is just part of the equation that gets weighed against a win-loss record.
“Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois,” Whitman continued. “But that should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure. We wish John, Allison, and their three children nothing but the best, and we thank his staff and their families as well for their many contributions to our program. All will be missed.”
Groce failed in that win-loss category in a big way, becoming the first head coach since Gene Bartow in the mid 1970’s to have a losing record in the Big Ten during his career at Illinois.
As for what is next, Whitman has a plan in place for the immediate and long term future of the program.
According to the release, a national search for the next head coach will begin immediately. In the meantime, assistant coach Jamall Walker has been elevated to the role of interim head coach.