CHAMPAIGN — In his first official hours on the job, new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman dismissed his football coach and gave his men’s basketball coach a vote of confidence.
Talk about a productive first day.
Illinois’ athletics department has been in turmoil for nearly a year. Allegations of student-athlete mistreatment — some found to be true, others found not to be — wrapped the university in simultaneous, costly investigations. Head football coach Tim Beckman was fired. Athletics director Mike Thomas departed not long after. Add to that underachieving in the department’s two highest-profile programs, and things looked absolutely out of control. Even the search for a new athletics director was reported to be haphazard and seemed to take much longer than it should have.
But that search landed Whitman, who impressed with his introductory press conference. The Illinois alum showed incredible passion, brought energy and put a professional face on a department that desperately needed new leadership.
Well, if his first day was any indication, Whitman has firmly established that he has full hold of the reins in Champaign.
In addressing the dismissal of Bill Cubit on Saturday afternoon, Whitman talked about the direction he wanted to see the football program — a football program he was once a part of — take.
“We’re striving for a standard of excellence,” Whitman said. “The goal for us is a championship standard, and today we took a big step in that direction. We all understand the challenges that coach Cubit’s situation presented. It’s no reflection on him, he’s a good football coach, he’s a good man. But at the end of the day we understood that allowing him to continue in that situation, as tenuous as it was, wasn’t the most productive use of the next nine, 10 months. We have recruiting to do, we have a team to care for. We have a group of people across the way who are very committed to trying to put what has been a very bumpy few months behind us. This decision allows us to start doing that.”
At the earliest possible moment he could make a coaching change, Whitman did, opting for short-term instability and long-term stability over another year of questions about the future. Using the phrase “we have a plan” when talking about who the next coach might be, it was obvious that Whitman has had plans all along, even saying he’s been thinking about the decision to dismiss Cubit for a while.
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“As you would imagine, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, long before I even knew that I was going to be the person selected for this position,” Whitman said. “You look at Illinois, you realize what some of the challenges are, you start to think in your own mind, ‘How are we going to handle these different things?’ I didn’t know until just recently that this was the answer, but I knew it was certainly a possible answer. And it wasn’t until very recently that we decided to absolutely go this way.”
It’s important, too, to realize the decision Whitman made with Groce. Cubit’s dismissal was a big deal, a big drop of the hammer by the new AD. That even was overshadowed when reports indicated Whitman’s next move could be to introduce Lovie Smith as Cubit’s successor. But Whitman’s vote of confidence for Groce was equally important. The Illini basketball program, in terms of results, isn’t too far ahead of the football program at the moment. Sure, teams have been ravaged by injuries in recent seasons, but that doesn’t change the fact that Illinois is on the verge of missing three straight NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1980.
But Whitman has faith in Groce, faith spurred on by recruiting successes with names like Te’Jon Lucas, Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett and recruiting opportunities in the form of freed-up scholarships. That’s why Groce is getting to stick around despite an unsuccessful run not seen in Champaign since Jimmy Carter was in office.
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Whitman didn’t want to be described as the savior of Illinois athletics, but in just one day he’s answered the department’s biggest questions about its highest-profile programs and reshaped the long-term future of both sports.
A savior he might not be — results will ultimately determine that — but after months of fans and observers asking “what’s going on?” in regards to this department, it’s now fully clear who’s in charge.
“It really is about putting ourselves in a position to establish that championship culture, to set that standard of excellence. And if there is a statement to be made there, then I think we’ve done that,” Whitman said. “I think that people understand that we are going to do everything in our power to put our programs in a position to be successful. And if we realize that a particular decision needs to be made, we’re not going to delay in making it.”
Decisiveness, thy name is Josh Whitman.