Big Ten

Josh Whitman's mission after firing John Groce: Finding his basketball Lovie Smith to return Illini to glory days

Josh Whitman's mission after firing John Groce: Finding his basketball Lovie Smith to return Illini to glory days

When Josh Whitman looked at the Illinois basketball program, he saw a program 10 years removed from its glory days.

He didn't want to look up one day down the road and discover that 10 years had become 30.

Whitman fired head men's basketball coach John Groce on Saturday, bringing an end to a five-year era of Fighting Illini basketball that from a purely win-loss perspective was unrecognizable to the fans and observers who watched Dee Brown and Deron Williams march the team all the way to the 2005 national championship game.

"We have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and national championships year in and year out," Whitman said during his Saturday press conference. "I was here at the peak. I was here 10 years ago. I saw the energy. I felt the environment at State Farm Center when you couldn't find a ticket, when every game was an event, every fan was in an orange shirt, the waiting list was thousands of people long to get a season ticket to an Illinois basketball game.

"That was 10 years ago. And if we're not careful, it will be 30 years ago. That's what I can't allow to happen."

Groce built a strong culture and always did things the right way, but as admirable as his successes were off the court and in the classroom, those things are not what college basketball programs are judged on.

For a program that saw 24 NCAA tournament appearances — including eight Sweet Sixteens, a pair of Final Fours and a trip to the national championship game — in the 32 seasons that preceded Groce's tenure, a four-year tournament drought was just too much. Groce failed to reach the 20-win mark in each of the past three seasons, something that the three Illinois coaches who came before him combined to do just three times in 16 seasons.

The Illini are no longer one of the Big Ten's top-flight programs, as evidenced by Groce's 37-53 conference record, and Illinois never finished higher than seventh in the league standings during his tenure.

The challenge falls to Whitman to change all that, and obviously one's memory goes back almost exactly a year to what he did in his first days on the job, instantaneously transforming the Illinois football program by firing Bill Cubit and bringing in Lovie Smith. That gave that program an immediate shot in the arm and a reason for fans, observers and recruits alike to pay attention to a program that was at the bottom of the league standings every season.

Can Whitman do the same with the basketball program?

"It starts with leadership," he said. "And there's no magic formula to this stuff. You find the right leader, you surround that leader with great resources, and then you give him the room to go off and do a good job. So we've got to find the right person.

"Fit is really critical to me. You want to find somebody that appreciates the University of Illinois, who wants to be a part of this program in the long term. I think you want to find somebody, ideally, who has head-coaching experience. Certainly a dynamic recruiter is critical. Someone who's a strong leader, high integrity. Basketball can be a pretty slippery business, and that was one thing that I can say about John and his group is that I never once lost sleep over what our basketball staff was doing out on the recruiting trail or in any other part of their work. And so that will continue to be a hallmark of our program."

Most of that describes Groce to a T, really, and so winning basketball games will have to also be on a candidate's resume, too.

Groce was often knocked for his recruiting skills, losing out on several high-profile recruits and several high-profile recruits from the Chicagoland area, specifically, like Cliff Alexander and Jalen Brunson. But he finally hit a few home runs this recruiting cycle, assembling a 2017 recruiting class that Rivals ranks as one of the top 15 in the country. Other services rank it in the top 10.

That group of recruits was one of the reasons it was conceivable that the Groce Era could have extended a sixth season. What happens with those players moving forward is a mystery at the moment.

"It did complicate things because it's unusual to have a program that has performed as ours has over the past few years but to have a recruiting class that's as highly rated as ours is this year," Whitman said. "I hope they will give us every opportunity to bring in a dynamic new coach, give that coach a chance to build a relationship with them and continue to want to be a part of the Fighting Illini."

As Whitman embarks on his mission to find his basketball version of Lovie Smith, this question oh so popular in college sports circles is top of mind: Is Illinois a good job?

It would seem any Big Ten gig is an attractive one simply because of the resources any member of the conference can provide. The amount of money pouring into these athletics departments from television deals is ridiculous. There are new facilities popping up all over the league, including the renovations to the State Farm Center just completed down in Champaign. According to USA Today's always-handy coaches salaries database, the Big Ten boasts five of the 20 highest-paid coaches in college basketball (Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, John Beilein, Matt Painter and Mark Turgeon). And in hiring Smith, Illinois proved it's not shy about committing big money to a head coach.

The Chicago recruiting ground is a fertile one, though proximity doesn't always matter much in modern-day recruiting. After all, if you're one of the best high school basketball players in the country and Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State all come calling, why should you give up competing for a national championship and gaining greater exposure for a professional career just to play for your home-state team? For kids raised in Chicago and its suburbs, what makes Champaign home any more than Durham or Lawrence? So recruiting America is going to be much more important for the next Illinois head coach than just recruiting Chicago.

But, as we've seen with Smith in football, hiring the right guy can open doors to the type of recruits Illinois couldn't attract before. Then again, Groce managed to make the Illini one of the final choices of several of the highest-rated recruits in the country. They just weren't the final choice.

What Whitman is planning to sell to prospective candidates is that Illinois was once a national power and can be made one again. The athletics director argues that all the pieces are in place, there just needs to be someone who can assemble the puzzle.

"I think we have unlimited potential here," he said. "We have $170 million that we just dumped into the State Farm Center to make it what I believe is arguably the best collegiate game venue in the country. We've got unbelievable tradition, obviously one of the top 15 programs in terms of wins over the course of our history. The Orange Krush is unbelievable. Our fans, our atmosphere. There are a lot of things that can be sold about Illinois basketball. And I believe that is a much better story to tell than: Look we've fallen on some hard times here in recent years, we haven't won as many games as we would like.

"The reality is there is no limit on what this program can accomplish. Obviously we've got a great recruiting class coming in. We return a very talented, capable nucleus of players for next year. So I don't think that the cupboard's bare. I think the cupboard's in a pretty good spot and we can be optimistic about what the future holds, and we want to find a head coach who shares that optimism and wants to be a part of leading the program to realize that full potential."

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.

 

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