Werner mailbag: Dec. 18

Illini publisher Jeremy Werner answers your Illini questions

I was almost done with this mailbag early Friday morning and then the Tim Banks news broke. Then I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. crushed it!), then I had two press conferences (Groce and Cubit), then I had the radio show and then I had dinner with the wife. So, sorry for the delay. But here are your questions answered!

From OffTheReservation:

1. I know the answer to this but I'd like to hear your take:

There's likely to be a new AD by early-to-mid January, hopefully. Is that too late to make a football coaching change?

2. Does John Groce seem any different to you this year? I'm catching a body language vibe from him that just seems more downcast than it has been.

1. Bill Cubit has not yet signed his contract. If he received another job offer, he could just leave. Now, he had a hand-shake deal with Illinois, so I'm not sure how much that legally binds either side. But Illinois is very unlikely to 1) pay Cubit the seven-figure buyout just for him to hold the fort for a few months and 2) try to dismiss him without pay before signing the deal. The latter scenario would basically be another Steven Salaita case and another black eye for the university and the athletic department.

2. John Groce knows the honeymoon is over. He's always intense but there's a tightness around the program more so than ever. That's what happens when the future is uncertain. Groce's reaction is to push harder, work harder. That can keep you focused or it can make those in the program tighter. We'll see.

From GallopingGhost77:

Is the AD search still on track in spite of all the distractions? (in other words, still planning on a new AD in early Jan?)

Have you heard of any viable candidates for AD who have said no, other than George?

Have you heard of any plans to fill the coaching vacancies in football yet?

1) The expectation is still to have a new athletic director in early to mid-January for the Board of Trustees to approve at their next meeting on Jan. 21. The seach committee has been working for weeks and a search firm should help keep the rest of their work confidential.

2) No. I'd expect Jim Phillips to say no, but if Illinois approached him in the right way, he'd probably listen. Phillips loves Illinois, which will always have more resources and interest than Northwestern, but I'd give about a 0.01 percent chance though that he leaves Northwestern for Illinois right now.

3) Of course, the team just added A.J. Ricker and Mike Hecklinski to the staff. I really like both hires and wish both those guys were on staff last season. Both are good recruiters. They'll have big challenges though working on a short-term deal. I hear they are in agreement with a linebackers coach but that it won't be announced for a week or two. Cubit also seems to have a good idea on a defensive backs coach, but it sounds like he is still coaching through a bowl game as well.


From Geo408:

Can you name the highest rated football recruits left that we have a realistic chance at?

OL Tre'Vour Simms, OL Mackenzie Nworah, OT Sean Foster, OG Trystan Castillo, LB Elias Reynolds, DB Isaiah Simmons, WR Jair Anderson, WR Zach Farrar, LB Tymar Sutton, WR Donnell Dunn. Some guys who aren't as highly rated but I really like for Illinois: OL Grayson Stover, DT Mike Williams (out of Alabama) and LB Colby Reeder -- my favorite prospect left on the Illini board (I think he can play immediately).

From aberger:

Who is the "real" person that will make the decision to hire the next AD.  Booster, President, BOT head, search committee head?

Great question. The search committee will likely suggest four candidates and their preference to the president and chancellor. They will then likely heed the consultation of some important boosters and the board of trustees. A powerful president could make this decision alone -- like Mike Hogan did with Mike Thomas. A group decision can work or go wrong, just like a one-person decision can work or go wrong.

From bbfan25:

Assuming Groce is back next season
Would he make staff changes?
Or would it take orders from AD?
What change(s) would you make?

Groce is very loyal. Though, I do like that before the season he added Darren Hertz to his staff, giving him an outsider view of the program. If Groce does return, I think he has to think about changing things up. It's not that one assistant has failed him and deserves all the blame. It's that the current staff just has not had success. I said it after his departure, but Brandon Miller was a phenomenal basketball coach -- eventually the head basketball coach at Butler for a short time before personal issues -- and one of Groces's most trusted staffers when he served as special assistant to the head coach in 2012-13. Dee Brown's shadow is hanging over the current staff, and even though that might be a bit awkward, I'd give it a try if I were Groce. See what Dee can do as a recruiter and how his leadership can help the team.

From IlliniDave34:

Have you heard any rumblings as to where Elijah Thomas will transfer to? Illinois in the mix?

Also, have the 2017 recruits said much as to how much the AD turmoil is affecting their decision to commit? This once in a generation Illinois class can't go by the wayside!

He will transfer to "likely not Illinois." Thomas and former AAU teammate Austin Grandstaff are both transferring after on semester, Thomas from Texas A&M and Grandstaff from Ohio State. I find it interesting that Nebraska is on both lists and SMU could be a player too.

Groce's uncertain future is a question recruits and their coaches consider. If Illinois had made and NCAA Tournament or were even 8-3, I think they'd be much closer to a commit.

From TheBeastisback:

yeah, Jeremy, do you think the Tribune got the facts right on their AD search story?

Yes. Though, despite those missteps, I do think Illinois will still have a pool of great candidates from which to choose.

From FightingIlliniFan:

What 2017 prospect do we actually have a great chance at getting? Not another close call or it was my second choice but who actually wants to be here.

To steal from Derek Piper, who has a better grasp on this, Illinois still would probably be your frontrunner for Da'Monte Williams (Peoria Manual), Jordan Goodwin (Belleville Althoff) and Javon Pickett (Belleville East). These prospects fit the Illini profile: downstate, top-100ish prospects with solid but not many other high-major offers. Illinois should land prospects like these. Though, they are all wings (Williams is much more of a 2 than a 1). Still, landing one or two of them in the next few months would be a big boost for Illinois.

From bhots23:


Imagine that you were just named the new AD at Illinois. First, congrats! Second, what would you do to address the coaching situations for football and basketball. If you were to make changes, who would your first calls to be? Who would be on your list? If you chose to stick with either coach, why, and would you any other changes?

For football, I'd throw all my public support behind Cubit. But I'd have my list and spend all of 2016 focused on finding the right guy. I'd spend November conducting my search, reaching out to candidates and reaching an agreement with my guy. I'd have my hire announced a day or two after the season -- like we thought Thomas would do this year. My early list would include Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken, Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm, Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, NC State head coach Dave Doeren, Texas head coach Charlie Strong, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. Some are more realistic than others, but the Big Ten has a draw to certain coaches. For instance, I bet Bronco Mendenhall would have been interested in the Illinois job this offseason.

For basketball, let me evaluate the rest of the season. It wouldn't be NCAA Tournament or bust for me. Groce's roster has been ravaged by injuries. But I want to see a competitive team and progress from the younger players. I also want to see some progress in recruiting (a 2017 commit or two). If those things are met, given that he still has three years left on his deal and the athletic department really doesn't want to give another seven-figure payout, I'd likely let Groce come back (encouraging a staff change) for a make-or-break 2016-17 season.

From majgardner11:

Do expect any staff roles to be readjusted?

With Tim Banks out, Mike Phair takes over as defensive coordinator. Expect a more aggressive, pro-style defense. Less quarters defense, more cover-3 and man-to-man defense. Cubit wants to stack the box and stop the run, force quarterbacks to throw into a tight window -- kind of what defenses did to Illinois. I prefer this defensive scheme -- as opposed to a more reactionary 4-2-5 -- in a conference like the Big Ten.

Al Seamonson likely will take over some of the special teams duties, along with Jeff Hecklinski.

Also, Ryan Cubit will move away from recruiting coordinator, a role likely filled by Hecklinski, though Cubit mentioned Nathan Scheelhaase could fill the role too. To be honest, the recruiting coordinator is more of a title than anything. Recruiting staffers Pat Embleton and Scott Yielding do a lot of the recruiting coordination but don't get as much of the credit.

Can you please write your opinion on HS athletes that do not have the grades to get into the U of I?  I couldn't get into the U of I years ago with 26 ACT.  The U of I is supposed to be an academically challenging school.  I am tired of hearing about athletes that can't get in.  We (universities) have academic standards for a reason.

Yes, Illinois has tougher academic standards than many programs. Yes, I think the Illinois admissions office and university should allow just a few exceptions per year for football and maybe one for basketball every few years. There are plenty of medicore to below-average students in high school who turn into good college students when placed in the right environment with the right support. But I have never been in the corner that academic standards are the reason Illinois is unsuccessful. Yes, the standards are a challenge, and maybe a self-inforced challenge. But other programs -- Wisconsin, Northwestern, Stanford to name a few -- have overcome them.

From Ress1:

During the last game the cameras showed a shot of Thorne, Black and Abrams in street clothes. What is your honest opinion of what type of success any college program that loses 3 of it's starters should expect from the team? Is it fair to expect Groce to be fired considering the injuries or is he just not competent and we simply need to move forward for the good of the program? Any scoop regarding Groce from the decision makers at UI? Thanks in advance.

To answer your last question first, what decision makers? The person(s) making the decisions -- permanent athletic director and chancellor -- are not here yet. But, yes, most Illinois supporters want their basketball program to be betteer. An attendance of 5,151 was a bad look for the program.

From majgardner11:

Any chance black redshirts?

Way too early to tell. Groce needs to get Black healthy. When he's healthy, he should play. I imagine Black will return some time this season though. As I wrote, Black can't play 10 games to receive a medical redshirt this season. He's already played in seven this season.

From OffTheReservation:

Is it true that Cubit agreed with the administration on a two-year fully guaranteed deal and then was handed a two year deal not guaranteed in the second year to sign?

I was told a few minutes after Cubit agreed to the deal that most of the contract was guaranteed. A few minutes later, I was told the second year wasn't all guaranteed. Cubit has not yet signed his deal. He and the university are working out some details to "make things right." I expect that to happen, and I expect the board of trustees to approve the deal next month.

From bhots23:

Gun to your head...who is the next AD at Illinois?

I think the candidate who lines up highest on the "qualified" vs. "interested" matrix is probably NIU athletic director Sean Frazier. But I also hear Craig Tiley, Tom Michael and Josh Whitman are names the committee has discussed. I think Rick George is just a dream, but it's a nice dream.

From Henson71:

Does the fact that the administration hired a search committee pretty much say that the existing AD candidates that you have profiled and the Tribune reported had been vetted are out the window?  In other words why would they pay a search committee a hefty sum to find them the same names they came up with themselves?  This must mean they are going outside that list and likely outside the Illini big donor circle for a candidate, correct?

Illinois went after Rick George thinking it could get him. It hasn't. So it started the process. A search firm is part of that process (even though it took way too long to hire). The search firm doesn't change much about the search. I think there's a misconception that search firms pick every candidate and the hire. Search firms are a resource. They provide a big database of information on candidates, do background checks, reach out to candidates, and set up meetings. Basically, search firms are a third party who keeps the press and FOIA out of the process. Illinois will still go after candidates the search committee is interested in, though the search firm may suggest a few extra names. I wouldn't look any more into it. 

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