CHAMPAIGN — Stability.
It was a word that was strange to see in an announcement that Illinois’ head football coach was being dismissed.
On his first day on the job, new athletics director Josh Whitman ended the short tenure of Bill Cubit as the head coach of the Fighting Illini and in doing so touted the stability the move would bring.
Stability is something that’s been in short order in Champaign, particularly within the football program. Tim Beckman was fired a week before the 2015 season began, throwing the team into complete disarray. Cubit held things together and led the Illini to a 5-7 season, but his future was always in doubt with just a two-year contract and now he’s gone, too. When Whitman announces the next head coach, he’ll be introducing Illinois’ third football coach since August.
That’s not exactly stability.
But Whitman is looking at the big picture. And he said that Saturday’s decision to again upset Illinois football’s apple cart was the first step in bringing long-term stability to the program, that the next head coach will be the guy who settles everything down, fixes the problems and starts winning.
That’s a tall task, but Whitman is confident that creating short-term instability with the dismissal of Cubit will yield long-term stability in the hiring of a new coach.
“It allows us to go off and hire someone who’s going to be around here for a long time,” Whitman said. “We all understand the contractual challenges that Bill had put that in some question. And the new head coach, I feel fairly confident in saying, will not be on a two-year contract. And so we’ll be in a position to go out and bring somebody in here who can return a level of long-term vision to the program.”
While Saturday’s move was indeed shocking, it can’t come as the biggest imaginable surprise for an athletics department that has experienced what Illinois has experienced since last spring. Allegations of student-athlete mistreatment from former members of multiple Illinois athletics teams rocked the department, with the ones against Beckman found to be true by an independent investigation, resulting in his firing. When further details from that investigation emerged, athletics director Mike Thomas was the next to go. Then came the haphazard, months long search that ended in Whitman’s hiring.
Whitman seems to be a stabilizing force with a grand vision for his alma mater. But he needs to find a head football coach that can make a similarly strong impression.
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Whitman recognizes what Cubit’s dismissal in the beginning of March — hardly the normal time to be searching for a new leader of a program — looks like: the latest disaster for a department that continues to spiral out of control. But he sees it differently. He’s not looking at this as another screw-up. He sees it as the necessary step to bring about a new beginning.
“As I told our team today, for some people this might feel like another body blow in a series of body blows, that we’ve had our challenges. I see it very differently, I see this as the first step toward what we ultimately want to build,” Whitman said. “And as most things are, this is a question of perspective. And this is the first very positive step toward developing that championship culture, that championship program that I know all of our fans and all of us hope to expect to see. So I think this is a very positive development in the history of our football program. And I understand how some people might not view it that way, but obviously if we didn’t think that this was in the best interest of University of Illinois football, we wouldn’t do it.”
The new football coach could be announced soon. Whitman, as expected, didn’t talk about candidates or lay down a hard and fast timeline. But when asked how quickly a hire could come, he talked about dealing with the university’s human resources department, making it seem like he had someone ready to go, even if he wouldn’t say it directly.
“We have a plan,” Whitman said. “And as you would imagine, the timing of this is what I would call a little bit non-traditional. We understand that. I hope that you would all be disappointed in me if we didn’t have some idea of the direction we hope to take this thing. What we don’t know — we have to work through our university process, the things that we need to work through from the university standpoint. But we’re hopeful to be able to bring this to a conclusion as quickly as we can.”
Reports already surfaced — some as early as during Whitman’s Saturday press conference — that former Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is expected to be Cubit’s successor. So things could be wrapped up quite quickly indeed.
But regardless of who it is or when it happens, Illinois’ next football hire will be done with one thing clearly in mind: bringing stability to a program that’s been in constant turmoil for months.