Three arrests in a little more than a month won’t necessarily determine John Groce’s future as the Illinois head basketball coach.
During a 45-minute impromptu press conference Thursday in Champaign, athletics director Josh Whitman doubled down on his endorsement of Groce.
Just a few weeks ago, on his first day on the job and shortly before dismissing head football coach Bill Cubit, Whitman gave Groce a vote of confidence during a radio interview, saying that Groce would continue to retain his job despite a third straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance.
Then came two separate arrests of Illinois players and charges of domestic battery, the arrests of junior guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn occurring after Leron Black was arrested in February and charged with pulling a knife on a nightclub bouncer.
Whitman and Groce acted appropriately in refusing to comment, judge or discipline before the legal system runs its course in all three cases. But Whitman did make a somewhat surprising statement Thursday, indicating that even if all three players are found to have done what they've been accused of, it won’t necessarily mean the end for Groce.
“I came out and made some strong statements supporting John and his leadership of our men’s basketball team. That position has not changed,” Whitman said. “I continue to believe very strongly in the leadership that John is providing.
“I disagree that if any of these allegations are proven true that that necessarily requires that John no longer be our men’s basketball coach.”
It was about as strong a vote of confidence as one can receive considering the tumultuous state of the Illinois program. These latest arrests made it four since last summer. Prior to these three in the last two months, Darius Paul was dismissed from the program following his arrest in France during the team’s European trip.
Add to that the overall lack of on-court success that saw Illinois miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season for the first time since 1980, and Whitman is putting a lot of faith in Groce when many fans are doing the opposite.
“The reality is that there are a lot of great things happening in our men’s basketball program right now,” Whitman said. “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 continue to build themselves into a championship-caliber program.
“I’ve got great confidence that John is the right person to lead us.”
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Whitman’s strong support of Groce is all the more interesting when contrasted with the lightning-quick coaching change he made with the football program earlier this month. That same day Whitman made his initial supportive comments about Groce, he dismissed Cubit. Two days later, he introduced Lovie Smith as the new head football coach, bringing an instant and sweeping change to a program that experienced an intense amount of turmoil last year.
But those hoping he would have an equally itchy trigger finger when it came to Groce are just going to have to be disappointed. And they’ll have to share the same patience that Whitman does when it comes to a basketball program that has undoubtedly seen better days.
“We live in an instant-gratification society. People want to assume that the best way to handle a situation is what often can be construed as the easiest way. They want a clean slate. Well that’s not always the best decision,” Whitman said. “My job isn’t to make the easy decision, it’s to make the right one. And in certain cases, as in this one, the right decision is to roll up our sleeves, get down in the trenches and work hard with someone that you trust, who you value, who shares the same vision that you have for a program and to work together to put that program in a position to be as successful as we all want it to be.
“There are times to make changes. I’ve shown that we’re not afraid to do that. And there are times, like now, to get down and to get to work and to build something we can all be proud of. And that’s where we are as a program.”