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Whitman getting it all wrong with Illini basketball program

Illinois’ athletic director Josh Whitman got a lot right in his first week on the job. He showed great self-confidence and a plan to lead the football program back to prominence. The hire of Lovie Smith was about as home-run as one could ask for given the timing and situation at Illinois.

However, Whitman has used up all that good will and thensome in his handling of the Illini basketball program. On Thursday, Whitman came out and backed head coach John Groce amidst some ugly player arrests over the past few months.

“I continue to believe very strongly in the leadership that John is providing,” Whitman said in Champaign. “I disagree that if any of these allegations are proven true it requires John no longer be our men’s basketball coach.

“The reality is there are a lot of great things happening in our men’s basketball program right now. Our student athletes are achieving academically, they’re doing good work in our community and they’re doing the right things in the gym to build themselves into a championship caliber program.”

It’s a very interesting move for the AD, especially as two players have been arrested on the same charge of domestic battery and another on aggravated battery in less than a month’s time.

What is most troubling is the second part of Whitman’s statement. How exactly are three arrests for battery of any kind “doing good work in our community?” In fact, beating on women is exactly the opposite of doing good work in the community.

For his part, Groce seems to be doing what he can with his players. He’s held every single player who has run afoul of the law and team expectations individually accountable, including season-long suspensions and holding players away from the team until their legal processes work themselves out.

The troubling part comes from the fact that his players seem to not be listening to the message sent by Groce. Just don’t tell that to Groce or Whitman apparently.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that we will hold our players accountable,” Groce said in Thursday’s press conference. “At the end of the day do I think they’re not listening? No, I think they are. I think they’ve made some bad choices. We take the allegations seriously. I think at the core level it comes down to making right decisions, doing the right thing, making the right choices. We have to continue to educate them.”

He can talk about accountability and listening all he wants, but the actions of his players speak much louder than his words do. Those actions certainly suggest a program with individuals who don’t have the best judgement or character.

Everyone makes mistakes in life, but it’s how you learn from those mistakes and from the mistakes of people around you that truly matters. Beating on a woman is never acceptable, yet it happened not once, not twice, but three separate times all within a month of each other inside the Illini basketball program.

That’s not learning, that’s not being a good member of the community and it certainly isn’t good character. It also suggests something isn’t right inside the leadership of the team as a whole, and that is on Groce.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of Whitman’s assertion of Groce building a championship-caliber program. It simply ain’t true folks.

Groce’s teams have consistently underachieved on the court, and there have been a myriad of reasons for that. Whether it be injuries, youth or suspensions to key players — something has always stood in the way of making this program back in to the power it once was within the Big Ten.

He’s been in Champaign for four years and has just one NCAA tournament appearance, all while compiling a less-than-stellar 77–61 (.558) overall record in that span.

That’s to say nothing of the lackluster recruiting results or inability to develop talent in to championship-caliber players either.

When you put it all together, it is really difficult to understand where Whitman is coming from in his decision-making process here.

After publicly backing Groce last week, Whitman was left with little choice but to put on a brave face publicly on Thursday. But, what happens when the next player arrest happens or the next time a player is involved in a scandal?

It’s not like Whitman has come out and given an ultimatum, instead his backing of Groce has left him no room to pull off a firing without looking extremely bad in the process. What coach would want to come in to a program where you can be publicly backed and then have the rug pulled out from underneath you?

Rather than doing what he did, Whitman would’ve been much better off expressing a sense of outrage, anger and disappointment in the behavior of the basketball players. He then should’ve come out swinging with concrete expectations for the program to be held accountable to in the future.

Setting expectations for Groce and the program would’ve given Whitman the strength and wiggle room to make a change if necessary. Instead, he backed himself in to an impossible situation.

A rookie mistake for a rookie D1 athletic director, that’s for sure.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball


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