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.
Mark Smith’s one-and-done highlights long road ahead for Illini basketball
Mark Smith’s impending transfer highlights need for Illini to not rest on one big recruit as Underwood hopes to rebuild program.
On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.
While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.
In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.
As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.
What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.
The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.
Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.
While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.
Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.
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.
Matt Bollant let go as head of Illini women’s basketball program
Matt Bollant was once one of the hottest names in women’s basketball coaching circles. After leading an NAIA powerhouse, he took the Green Bay Phoenix to new height too.
That reputation made him a hot commodity to major programs looking to turn things around. Instead, the hire was nothing but a mess for the Illinois Fighting Illini and the mess was finally cleaned up by athletic director Josh Whitman on Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like to thank Matt Bollant and his staff for their many contributions to Illinois Basketball during the last five years,” Whitman said in a statement released by the athletic department. “They have faced great adversity, both on and off the court, yet have greeted every day with unyielding optimism and unmatched effort. They have maintained the well-being and personal growth of the student-athletes under their charge as their foremost priority and have been exceptional ambassadors for Illinois Athletics in our community and in basketball circles across the country.”
Still, Bollant followed the same path as his men’s counterpart and simply couldn’t get the program to become a consistent winner on the court. Bollant leaves the program having averaged just 12 wins per season. He leaves the program having gone 61-94 overall and 22-62 in Big Ten play.
The first season in Champaign was promising, as the Illini finished fifth in the Big Ten and made it to the WNIT tournament. Illinois won 19 games that season and also reached the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
However, there was no progress made and the Illini failed to reach the postseason for the next four years straight. Illinois hit rock bottom this season, finishing just 9-22 overall and 3-13 in Big Ten play.
Additionally, there were messy allegations by ex-players about language and coaching techniques. Some also alleged racial favoritism on the team.
That clearly wasn’t good enough for Whitman and he noted that in his statement to the public.
“Without question, the program is in a better place today than it was when they arrived,” said Whitman. “Our expectations for women’s basketball, however, match those that we have for many of our other sport programs: to compete at the highest level, year in and year out. I am excited to embrace a future for Illinois Women’s Basketball where we realize the program’s full – and virtually unlimited – potential.”
Bollant had one year left on his deal and the press release notes that he will receive his full $450,000 salary per the terms of his contract.
It will be interesting to see the direction Whitman takes with this hire, but it will be a national search to say the least.