Firing a head coach right before a key moment? It’s a familiar tone for the Illinois Fighting Illini football program. After letting former head coach Tim Beckman go just before the 2015 season opener, the program now faces a change at the top just before heading in to spring practice.
New athletic director Josh Whitman announced that Bill Cubit had been relieved of his duties as head coach on his first official day as AD.
“I appreciate the leadership that Bill Cubit provided our football program during what has been, unquestionably, a very tumultuous time,” Whitman said. “He accepted the challenge on an interim basis under incredibly difficult and unusual circumstances, and he has continued to work diligently for the betterment of our student-athletes. Through his efforts, he has kept the program moving forward. Bill is a good man and a good football coach. All of us in the Illini Nation owe him a debt of gratitude for his work leading our team these last months. At this juncture, however, I think it is most important that we position our program for long-term success by creating a more stable environment for the coaches, players, and prospective student-athletes.”
Just four months ago the previous regime believed enough in Cubit to take the interim tag off him and give him a two-year contract. However, it is very clear that Whitman has his own ideas and believes that a long-term solution to what has been a long downward spiral don’t include Cubit at the helm of the program.
No doubt the timing is interesting, but what was Whitman supposed to do? Let Cubit twist in the wind and lead the team for just one more season before being let go anyway?
A lame-duck coach with no clear succession plan is a death sentence for a college football program on the recruiting trail. Instead, Whitman pulled the plug on a coach he couldn’t see being in Champaign for the long haul.
Perhaps Whitman is right in his assessment though, as Cubit wasn’t exactly a rousing success in his tenure as Western Michigan’s head coach. Otherwise, why was he available as an offensive coordinator for the Illini in the first place?
Cubit finished his 8-year tenure at Western Michigan just 51-47 overall and 36-27 in MAC play, including a 4-8 season in his final year in Kalamazoo. His tenure included three bowl appearances and three losses in said bowl games as well. Mediocrity in the MAC doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that anything but mediocrity would be attainable for the Illini as well.
Mediocrity is exactly what the Illini got out of Cubit this past season, with his team finishing 5-7. Sure, a tumultuous start to the season didn’t help, but Cubit’s biggest credit was his ability to steady a rudderless ship and calm what were stormy waters for the program.
It doesn’t mean he should’ve been the permanent replacement, and even upon his hiring back in late November it just felt like a stop-gap move for an athletics department without clear leadership. The move screamed “keep the status quo until someone else finally comes in with a clear plan going forward.”
At the time, it was a smart move…as we said:
The move is a smart one for a university and athletic department in flux. They aren’t over-extending on the monetary side of things and the contract allows a new athletic director to take on his own head coach or keep Cubit for a longer term.
Clearly Whitman preferred his own man for the job, and now the question is if Whitman knows exactly who that person is. Given that we are in March and not December, the pool of available coaching talent is clearly limited.
However, Whitman’s decisive choice on his first day signals he has plenty of confidence in his decision-making and that will likely extend to the process of hiring Cubit’s replacement.
With the Illini set to start spring practice on March 11, this process is likely to happen in warp speed.
Illinois fans may have been surprised by the timing, but those same fans should be happy to know they have a strong, confident leader at the helm of their athletic program for a change.
That is worth more than any short-term results a Cubit-coached team may have had on the field and any short-lived pain of finding a head coach at an odd time of the year.
Given this move…perhaps its just the first of many to clean house and make a clean break with a troubled past. Look out John Groce and Matt Bollant, it wouldn’t be surprising to see you guys next to go.