CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Josh Whitman remembers what it was like at an Illini home basketball game, during and just after the run Dee Brown, Deron Willams and Luther Head made to the 2005 national championship game.
He remembers the excitement he felt in the building once known as the Assembly Hall. He remembers that every game was an event. “The waiting list was thousands long for a season ticket,” Illinois’ Director of Athletics said Saturday.
Those were the glory days. Winning. Excitement. National relevance. Annual trips to the NCAA Tournament.
But now Whitman sees empty seats. He hears grumbling fans. He expects that later this evening Illinois will miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year.
Understanding how the enthusiasm has dipped, Whitman made Saturday what he said was the most painful decision he’s made as AD. He fired his close friend, head men’s basketball coach John Groce, effectively immediately.
Assistant coach Jamall Walker becomes the interim head coach and will direct the team if a postseason invitation arrives this evening. (Illinois expects to get an NIT bid).
A national coaching search commences immediately, although Whitman said he will not use the help of a search firm.
Whitman had to push friendships aside when he realized he had a greater responsibility to the university.
“That was 10 years ago,” he said of the excitement he felt in those days. “And if we’re not careful it will be 30 years ago. That’s what I cannot allow to happen.”
Whitman said he’s been evaluating the program since he was hired last February but didn’t reach a decision to make a coaching change until Thursday night, when he huddled up with some of his Department of Intercollegiate Athletics administrative team following Illinois’ 75-55 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.
He met with Groce at 1 p.m. Saturday, told him of his decision, then met with the team and sent text messages to recruits. He’ll be talking to those recruits in person as soon as possible, Whitman said.
John Groce also appeared at the Saturday evening press conference after he’d met with his former players.
Smiling but sounding a bit melancholy, Groce thanked many people including players, coaches, staff, fans and Whitman for his five years in Champaign-Urbana.
He said he was “still trying to digest it all” and said if it were his choice, he would coach this team in the NIT. Whitman made the call to use Walker in the NIT.
Groce also said it will be hard to walk away from the 2017-18 recruiting class, a four-player group that currently ranks as the nation’s ninth best by Scout.com.
“We worked really hard to get those guys and put that class together,” he said. “I’ll have a conversation with them soon.”
Will Groce encourage those recruits to stick with their commitments to the University of Illinois?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wish this place nothing but success. It’s a great place. I feel privileged to have coached on that sideline for five years.”
Whitman said not to expect a coaching search that ends as quickly as it did when he introduced Lovie Smith as the football coach two days after firing Bill Cubit.
“That was a unique situation,” Whitman said. “A lot of great coaches are still coaching. They have programs going through the postseason and we will be respectful of their obligations.”
Whitman said the excitement he felt a decade ago can be part of Illini basketball again.
“The future is bright,” Whitman said. “It’s an unbelievable program with almost unmatched tradition. We’ll hit the marketplace and consider different candidates while looking for someone who understands the traditions here, someone with a great fit for the University of Illinois and someone who understands the rich history we have here.
“Illinois basketball will stand up and make us all proud again.”
Whitman said he is prepared to pay for the right coach, as he did when he paid $21 million to lock in football coach Lovie Smith for six years.
Since Groce is still under contract for two more seasons, the university will pay him a buyout of approximately $1.7 million.