CHAMPAIGN – Matt Bollant felt somewhat vindicated Wednesday during his first public speaking appearance since allegations of racial discrimination and abusive coaching were levied on his staff by seven former players in May.
“I think the report is kind of the first step in moving forward,” said Bollant, referring to the 226-page independent review that so far exonerates Bollant and his staff of the allegations.
Though a lawsuit filed by the accusers still looms, the review provided evidence that disproved racial discrimination of practice plans and room assignments.
But the review did find that former Bollant assistant Mike Divilbiss, his associate head coach for his first three seasons at Illinois, implemented a sometimes “harsh” coaching style. A month after the university conducted an internal review of the allegations, Bollant and Divilbiss agreed to part ways. Bollant did not detail why he separated from his right-hand man after seven years together, including four highly successful seasons at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“I think the world of him and wish him the very best,” Bollant said.
Most who watched games or practice, though, knew that Divilbiss – a former head coach at Idaho – was basically the co-head coach. Divilbiss was usually more vocal, more fiery than the calm, contemplative Bollant. Divilbiss often accompanied Bollant to press conference appearances.
In response to a question about Divilbiss pushing players too hard, Bollant said on Wednesday: “The very best players want to be coached and they want to get better. We want to recruit players that want to get better.”
But Bollant seemed to allow the relationship with Divilbiss to be more co-worker-like rather than boss-employee relationship. At the least, Divilbiss, who Bollant called an “old-school” coach, seemed to have a negative effect on the team as the losses piled up last season, a 15-16 campaign. The effect: stressed and unhappy players, several of whom transferred after the season and eventually joined the lawsuit. The review states that Bollant may have let Divilbiss's “bad cop” role drown out Bollant's “good cop” persona.
“It's certainly something we can improve,” Bollant said. “That's something looking back at it … how do we make this more of a reflection of me? I'm upbeat. I'm positive and optimistic. How do we help our players to be like that as well on the court?
“[We do that by] just being me and my voice. Practice all spring, that's all they heard was my voice. In the timeouts next year, it will just be my voice. I think that'll help them.”
While Bollant breaking his summer silence was newsowrthy, the most interesting viewpoints came from the other two Illinois assistants, LaKale Malone and Tianna Kirkland – both African-Americans. It was obvious that both couldn't wait to break their ordered silences and speak against the claims of racial discrimination.
“I was offended by that,” assistant LaKale Malone said, “because I know what I stand for. I know what I believe in. I know what's right. I know there's no place for that in college athletics or in the world. That's something I know I stand firmly against.”
Said Kirkland: “I was really shocked, honestly. I was hurt. I was angry at times. I kind of ran the gamut. I'm a minority, myself. I've experienced racism, myself, in my life, and I never saw anything that I thought was racist going on. I was upset by it all. I didn't agree with what was being said, so I just wanted them to get the investigation done so the public would know what I already knew, that that wasn't going on.”
All the coaches said the ordeal highlights that they must do a better job of letting their players know that they can voice their concerns.
“They need to feel like they can share their heart," Bollant said. "That's really important for moving forward.”
The solace for the Illini – which lost two of its top-six scorers to graduation (Ivory Crawford and Brittany Carter) and two of the other top-six scorers to transfer (Jacqui Grant and Amarah Coleman, both part of the lawsuit) – is that they will escape all the noise next week with a foreign trip to France.
If anyone needs a vacatio – even if it includes several basketball games – it's the Illini women's basketball team, especially the coaches. After months of surviving an assault against their character, Bollant and his assistants could let out a deep breath, defend themselves and reset.
Soon, basketball will be the focus again.
“I will say this has given us an opportunity to reflect,” Bollant said. “As a coach, we look at everything in our program, every assistant coach, everything we do and how do we make it better and how do we build this program and make it what we want it to be? This has been a great time to do that.”