I've waited a while to post a new blog because there hasn't been a whole lot of good things going on within the Illinois sports landscape. Well. the wait is over and it has been an epic Saturday in Champaign-Urbana. So much for a quiet first weekend in March.
With barely two weeks elapsed since Josh Whitman was named the new Athletic Director of the University of Illinois, on Saturday morning, the news began to break just before 11:00 am that Illinois head football coach Bill Cubit had been fired, just a few short months after having the interim tag removed by then interim AD Paul Kowalczyk. At the time, Cubit was given a two-year contract, which led many to believe that something like this could happen.
What is the perhaps the strangest development of the whole process was the timing involved. Whitman, who played football for Illinois from 1998-2001, decided to make the change on his first day removed from his last day at his previous employer, Washington University in St. Louis. The firing was made just 6 days before the start of spring workouts, but given some of the recent decisions made within the University, this was not that big of a surprise.
Whitman is trying to make a splash as he settles into the job, officially taking the reins on March 21st. Along with Cubit, his son Ryan, who was the offensive coordinator, was also relieved of his duties. The other assistant coaches, four of which have been hired in the last couple of months, will be given the opportunity to interview with the new head coach, and judging from the swiftness of this decision, Whitman must already have someone in mind as a successor.
So, the next question is, who might that next person be? Ever since the news broke, there have been several names leaping to the forefront of the discussion, but one name in particular, Lovie Smith, has been gaining steam.
If the next coach is in fact Smith, then Whitman will make a huge statement for his first coaching hire at his alma mater. Whitman, being a football guy, has immense passion for the program, and since football is the major revenue stream for the athletic department, that program needs to be overhauled and steered in the opposite direction that it is heading.
Smith has been a head coach in the NFL, both with the Bears and the Buccaneers, and would also satisfy a criteria that the university has not had before, an African-American head coach for one of the two major sports programs at Illinois. Stay tuned, because this could get even more interesting than it already has.
On a local radio station sports show in Champaign on Saturday morning, Whitman gave Illinois men's basketball head coach John Groce a vote of confidence, meaning the he will be back at the helm next year for his fifth season in Champaign. This will be a very important year for Groce, as the Illini attempt to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in what will be four seasons. Groce made the big dance in his first year at Illinois, but has been shut out ever since. Injuries have played a big part of that this season, as Groce has seen Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black out for virtually the entire season with various injuries,
On the court, the Illini are struggling mightily this season, just 13-17 overall and 5-12 in the Big Ten as they play their regular season finale on Sunday morning at Penn State (11:00 am CT, BTN).
A win over the Nittany Lions will give the Illini the #11 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and an opening round matchup against Rutgers, who just won their first conference game over Minnesota. Lose to Penn State, and you are looking at the #12 seed, and a date with the Golden Gophers, who have been having even worse luck than the Illini have as of late. Regardless of who you play, it is not a viable place to be in, playing what essentially is the play-in game to the old conference tournament format.
One reason Groce is returning deals with recruiting. Already on board for next season is Te'Jon Lucas, a point guard from Milwaukee that, unfortunately, broke his foot in two places playing in front of Groce (and me too, for that matter) at Parkland last month. For the 2017 class, Groce has received verbal commitments from Javon Pickett and DaMonte Williams, who is Frank Williams' son. Still in the works, and possibly could be announced in the next few weeks are Jordan Godwin and Jeremiah Tilmon, two recruits from the St. Louis area. Tilmon is playing this season at La Lumiere Prep in Indiana, the same school that produced Illini freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands. With the future of the Illinois program looking brighter from the recruiting angle, that is reason enough to give Groce the benefit of the doubt and another season. It certainly cannot get any worse.
A question of judgement from new AD Whitman is why nothing has been said about the future of Illinois women's basketball coach Matt Bollant. Bollant, who saw his team falter in the Big Ten season this year, finished their season a dismal 9-21 overall, and just 2-16 in the Big Ten. What was most disturbing about the program was the scandal in the off-season involving former assistant coach Mike DiVilbiss, which ultimately led to his dismissal. Bollant had marked success at his previous stop, Wisconsin-Green Bay, but has not been able to get the Illini program even remotely close to that level. That news could come soon, later, or not at all. Again, stay tuned.