Tate: Trust Whitman to make another tough, smart decision
“No duty I perform is more critical than decisions pertaining to head coaches.”
— Josh Whitman
You’re likely to be wrong if you try to outguess the Illinois athletic director.
Whitman’s first strike brought down the roof, enticing longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith back into the college game. More recently, with the UI volleyball clan expecting Whitman would attract a seated head coach, and perhaps a woman, he instead tabbed a Nebraska assistant, Chris Tamas.
Fool me once ... fool me twice ... maybe it’s best not to try to predict his next move.
But the most popular game in Illini country these days is projecting how Whitman will handle the bubbling men’s basketball situation.
And the outcome will be clear in little more than three weeks as, barring a dramatic turnaround, Illinois will be eliminated from the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament in Washington, D.C., ahead of Selection Sunday on March 12.
Looking towards March
The flight home from D.C. will surely be a grim one. Perhaps John Groce will know his fate in advance. Maybe not.
Up to now, Whitman has given no hints, other than to express his support for the team and acknowledge an awareness that the 1980s didn’t “belong to the Illini” without Lou Henson encountering bumps in the late ’70s.
Unlike North Carolina State, where rumors surfaced that inquiries are underway to replace still-coaching Mark Gottfried (since denied), Whitman has maintained a tight lip.
The important news is this: Whitman is the sharpest guy in the room, and displays the deepest feelings for his alma mater.
He has inside information of what committed recruits are thinking, and he is surely developing an opinion on the availability of a suitable coaching replacement.
Furthermore, if he favors status quo, he has the backbone to withstand the headwinds of fan discontent that would accompany Groce’s retention.
Keeping tabs on recruits
Under normal circumstances, with Illini basketball literally falling off a cliff, and fan discontent at record levels, replacement would be logical and necessary.
The team has undeniably underachieved, failing to show progress after grievous on- and off-court failures of the previous year. Groce’s substitution patterns drive fans up a wall, and the defensive shortcomings give the appearance of faulty fundamentals (or is it a lack of athleticism?).
Which brings us around to a mitigating factor: recruiting. A decision to fire Groce would open the possibility of fracturing the best incoming class in years.
Here again, Whitman has inside information. He has conferred with prospective athletes, both signed and unsigned, as well as parents. Most of us are blindfolded in this regard. He isn’t.
Studying it from all angles
We’ve seen Whitman act swiftly with Smith and Tamas. If he decides change is necessary, look for him to make another whirlwind move.
Remember, just because he has asked fans to join him in supporting the team doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been analyzing replacement possibilities. That’s his job.
Whitman respects Groce and would prefer to keep him. But in the end, weighing the divergent factors, he’ll make the decision that he feels is best for the long haul. His difficult choices in the past year have been on point. Why would this be any different?
And before you ask: Yes, marginal improvements and promising recruiting on the women’s side indicate that Whitman will retain Matt Bollant. But there I go, trying to anticipate the Illini AD ... and thereby demonstrating that I didn’t learn my lesson with Lovie and Chris.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org