Tate: Whitman shows he has what it takes with Groce's firing
John Groce lost too many basketball games.
That’s all. A 37-53 Big Ten record and four straight NCAA whiffs are unacceptable at Illinois.
Athletic director Josh Whitman, who continues to display a maturity beyond his years — who said he was too young? — ended days of speculation by pulling the plug Saturday.
Acknowledging his close friendship with Groce, the AD said: “I was able to reach a point of peace with the decision. And when I make a decision like that, I’m not one to dally around. I didn’t think that would be fair to John and others in the program once I decided.”
Despite Groce’s request to coach the team in the NIT — the 18-14 Illini should receive their NIT assignment tonight — Whitman named assistant Jamall Walker as interim coach. Walker will also have a lead responsibility in maintaining contact with signed recruits and others. He will conduct practice today.
Meanwhile, the AD will initiate a national search without outside help.
The search is on
Whitman was moved to act in part by his recollection of happier days. Herein lies the value of having someone with institutional knowledge in the position of leadership.
“I was here at (basketball’s) peak,” he said. “I was here 10 years ago. I saw the energy. I felt the environment at the State Farm Center. You couldn’t find a ticket. Every game was an event. Every fan was in an orange shirt. The waiting list for season tickets was in the thousands. I remember standing in the crowd, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the pregame video went on the board: ‘The champ is here.’
“Remember that? I’ve never forgotten the feeling when that team came on the court. That’s what we’re striving for. That was 10 years ago. And if we’re not careful, it’ll be 30 years ago. That’s what I can’t allow to happen.
“We’re looking for someone who understands our rich history, someone who wants to be here. My search will be a traditional process, unlike what we did a year ago with Lovie Smith. A lot of great coaches are still coaching, and we’ll be respectful of their obligations.”
Looks like Williams is out
Whitman said he has been evaluating the program for the entire year since he arrived. It is believed that his minimum requirement was making the NCAA field, a quest that Groce missed in losing the last two games.
“This decision wasn’t based on one game or a single moment,” Whitman said. “It was an assessment that’s been ongoing for a long time, and I made the decision (Saturday).”
Citing the competition, Whitman likened it to “musical chairs where we don’t want to be the person left standing when the music stops.”
One rumor has already been quashed. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that “Illinois was willing to make Monty Williams one of the NCAA’s top paid coaches, but he’ll pass. He’s focused on a prompt NBA coaching return.”
Williams is a former head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans and has served with Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski with the United States National team. He is now in the San Antonio Spurs’ front office.
This information, if accurate, serves two purposes: (1) Williams is out of the picture and (2) Whitman has ample funds to pay someone considerably more than the $1.7 million that Groce received.
No need for salt in wound
This was the right decision. But it’s not one that a much-too-angry Illini Nation should celebrate.
Groce handled the situation with grace and humility. He attended the press conference at Memorial Stadium and was as upbeat as ever.
Said Whitman: “I want to remind people in this room and our fans that some good people lost their jobs (Saturday). This is not a day to celebrate, but a day when we should recognize that a bunch of people worked very hard the last five years.
“These are not people in a reality show or actors in a play. These are people with real dreams, aspirations and fears ... and they had a rough day (Saturday). The cameras are going to go off and the writers are going to go away, and they’ll still have to pack up the boxes, put their houses on the market, find new jobs and be away from their families.
“Let’s be respectful.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.