Werner Mailbag: Feb. 20

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' questions about athletics director Josh Whitman's plans and Illinois basketball

If you haven't already done so, give us your top 5 priorities for Josh to work on.

I'll separate these into short-term and long-term.

Short-term: 1) Meet with donors and fans. Sell his vision; 2) Meet with every coach to discuss their programs, philosophies and what they need; 3) Meet with every DIA department and discuss their departments and needs; 4) Familiarize himself with Illinois facilities, contracts, innerworkings, etc.; 5) Decide on futures of John Groce, Matt Bollant and Bill Cubit's contract

Long-term: 1) Find the right coaches for the top three sports (whether it's the guy in the role now or someone else); 2) Facilities upgrades (football facility, basketball practice facility, baseball stadium, etc.); 3) Sell suites (too much money at stake for these to go unsold) ; 4) Build consensus among donors, board of trustees, administration, faculty and fans; 5) Admissions standards (decide if he's OK with what they have or Illinois needs to change, discuss with Wilson or next chancellor).

Will he push to lower the admittance requirements for student athletes to level the playing field?  

I asked him that on my radio show. Here is his answer:

"I know that's an easy place to go and say that we need to make adjustments," Whitman said. "I also happen to believe that that's a competitive advantage for us. I think that we will win games not in spite of having bright, intelligent, motivated kids but because we have intelligent, bright motivated kids. That, for me, is one of our calling cards.

"To use a personal story, when I was coming out of high school, there were some people who tried to suggest that I play football in the Ivy League. For me, the opportunity to come to an institution like Illinois and play in the Big Ten and receive what in many ways was an Ivy League education was something that separated the University of Illinois from other places that I was considering. That, I think, is a part of our brand. We talked today about developing our identity, to developing of what we are as an institution and that's a part of it.

"So I understand the concerns about admissions. I understand the concerns about academics. But I think these things are not mutually exclusive. We know that. We can do both well. I think the University of Illinois has proven that over time and we will continue to develop that as our calling card going forward th

Will he push for beer and an outdoor beer garden on the balconies overlooking the north end zone?

Way too early to answer that question, sorry. He's got bigger tasks in front of him.

Will he consider ending the canned music during timeouts, etc and football and basketball games, including the chimes asking for the crowd to "make some noise"?

This is a problem? Man, losing makes people angry at everything.

What is his position regarding UI getting a hockey team?

Mike Thomas, a Denver University grad, supported a UI hockey team. But he didn't have a donor willing to give the $80 million plus it would cost just to start a program. Plus, there are Title IX requirements that would mean Illinois would have to start another women's program which costs even more money. Before Illinois can start a new program, it must give its current programs all the resources it needs. So unless Shad Khan or Jimmy John wants to cut a huge check, hockey just isn't feasible.

What does he think about Soldier Field/United Center events?

Haven't had the chance to ask him that yet. Josh knows Chicago and St. Louis are huge resources for Illinois that must be nurtured. I'm not sure if he would've taken the Northwestern game to Soldier Field, but I doubt he'll end the United Center series.

Should we expect to see more involvement from football alumni with Whitman's hire?

I would think so. Some of the alumni I've talked to are stoked about the hire. They have one of their own, like Guenther, who poured blood, sweat and tears (maybe literally) into the program. That's not a knock on Thomas. He naturally just didn't have the emotional tie and connection to Illinois that Whitman has.

1) I know it's early, but have you heard anything on what whitman is going to prioritize and tackle first?
2) What's the Booster support/network looking like/feeling now? All behind? Lot of work to do? Etc 
3) what's the craziest AD rumor you heard?
4) In a nut shell, what went down with both George and Tiley?
5) Were there any other candidates besides what was reported? Q

1) I answered some of those questions above.

2) Excited, anxious to see what Whitman does but this will be a long haul. I think most are giving him some space to get his feet under him.

3) Kelly Mehrtens as a candidate is up there. Illinois had no interest. In January some people told me Rick George to Illinois was all but done (but that was obviously way false). Shad Khan flight patterns were humorous. One person told me Tom Michael was the favorite during interview week. I hadn't heard anything about Michael being a top candidate before or after that. He was closer to getting the job in 2011 when he was one of the search committee's finalists but the university administration shied away from someone with Guenther ties.

4) Both have great jobs. Both make a lot of money. Rick was interested but the timing just didn't work out for him personally. I'm not sure how strong the mutual interest was for Tiley. Illinois contacted a few times but to my knowledge there was never a full interview. I'm not sure if that was Tiley's decision or Illinois' decision, but Tiley would not have come cheap.

5) I heard Texas A&M associate AD Marcy Girton was a candidate as well as a  Pac-12 associate AD. But the main candidates were identified correctly by media as early as November/December. Patrick Chun was a bit of a surprise and many in the Big Ten think he's a rising star. But Rick George and Josh Whitman were two of the top names for most of the process with Tom Michael as a guy who was always going to get an interview.

What is he going to do with top staffers? Make some changes?

There were other questions asked about a few specific people, as well. Whenever there is a new boss, some inherited employees are going to feel uncomfortable. But a reminder that these people have lives, family, etc. You also must remember that there is a lot of good happening in the program, good that comes from a lot of people in the athletics department. But the top three sports are vastly underachieving and Whitman will do what he must to make them successful. I think many DIA employees are eager for a leader with vision who will bring change. Others may resist change. Some fought Mike Thomas' changes as he tried -- and failed -- to bring the athletics department into the 21st century. Certainly, there will be changes. However, some of Thomas'  staffers shouldn't just be run off because Thomas hired them. Whitman will need time to evaluate the entire program, including internal operations in Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building. It also costs money (severance) to fire employees, especially employees who have been at Illinois a long time. It is far too early to determine what Whitman will do. Remember, he doesn't officially start his job until March 21.

Assuming everything on basketball side stays status quo for next year (no new coaches, no Thorne, no transfers, no meaningful new big man, and everyone healthy enough to contribute), where do think the team will picked to finish in the B1G by consensus?

Picked to finish by media? Probably in the top-10 but maybe not in the top half because other Big Ten teams will remain strong. It's hard to see them getting picked ahead of Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin (assuming Hayes is back), Purdue, Indiana and Michigan. Iowa loses a lot of talent and Maryland likely will too. Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State continue to improve.

That said, Illinois will return a lot of talent (we'll see about Leron Black), including two of the Big Ten's best scorers (Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn). Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and Michael Finke should take sophomore steps. The point guard spot is upgraded with Te'Jon Lucas and Tracy Abrams. The post is the big question due to Leron Black's status and a possible fifth-year transfer. Kipper Nichols also could help there. It's an intriguing roster, but it's one with a lot of moving, new pieces. If Groce is back, this is his make-or-break year. He'll have enough talent to make an NCAA Tournament. It's up to health and coaching to get them there.

What happened with Thorne? Did he want to come back next year? If he was looking to come back for a 6th year, frustrating to see that redshirt burnt.

We haven't had the chance to ask Thorne that question, but, yes, I expect he wanted to come back. He can make money playing basketball after he graduates (and maybe he didn't want to go to school for another year). He was cleared by doctors to play and it sounds like his diabetes has complicated recovery. Yes, it's extremely frustrating that he burned any chance for a sixth year for 16 useless minutes in a blowout loss in Bloomington. But if the doctors cleared him, that might have hindered any chance at a medical hardship anyway. It wasn't a guarantee he would get it, and Illinois knows better than anyone that it can't count on the NCAA for those hardship waivers.

Would groce be open to suggestions (like replacing an assistant with someone who knows xs and os and has developed players)?

I don't know if Groce has much bargaining power if Whitman approached him with something like this. But, I'm firmly on the side that an athletics director shouldn't meddle like this. Whitman talks about staying in his lane. If he thinks Groce is the man for the job, he should let Groce run his program, including management of his staff. If he doesn't trust Groce to manage his staff or run the program, then he should find a different head coach. Also, Groce has developed plenty of players (Hill, Nunn, Finke, Morgan are examples this season alone). The problem is that his teams haven't developed well together, injuries have stunted that growth and he hasn't recruited a point guard.

Assuming Groce gets next year, would he have to get to the Tourney to avoid dismissal? Would that be enough to get Josh to give him an extension?

Yes! Groce must make the tournament next season. This is Illinois. I don't blame Groce for 2014. In fact, I think he did a heck of a coaching job with an inherited roster full of holes. Groce will have two years left on his deal after next season, if he has a successful season (top half Big Ten, NCAA Tournament berth, good recruiting), Whitman should probably add a year to his deal (maybe two depending on the level of success).

When will the WE WILL WIN Tshirts be available and where?

Available now at GameDay Spirit.

What is Dee's role moving forward?

I doubt it changes much. He's basically the Illini ambassador, and he's phenomenal at it. He wants to coach in the future, and he should be considered by any Illinois basketball coach (moreso than any former Illini player other than Roger Powell).

How much turnover does there need to be on the basketball staff to move this program forward, and how much can Whitman dictate to Groce?   Or does Groce need to go? There are a issues with player development, team chemistry (in the past 2 years) and now, with Leron Black arrested, another black mark on the program. UI alums and fans are tired of this!!!!!

Since Groce will most likely be back do you believe there will be any staff changes?  I've heard rumors of Rob Judson's name coming up and IMO getting a veteran coach like him along with Dee could really turn things around and get people back on the Groce train.

I wouldn't argue with a move like this but Rob Judson isn't leaving a stable job under Tom Crean (yes, he's stable there now) for a make-or-break year under Groce. Like Weber, Groce is very loyal to his staff. Weber was loyal to a fault. Is Groce? He did make two changes to his staff (special assistant to the head coach and strength and conditioning) during the summer. Should he make more? There's an argument for it because what he's had the last three years just isn't working. But again, I don't support an athletic director forcing these moves. If he doesn't trust the head coach, find a different coach.

Josh w has had two prior stops as an ad, albeit short. Was there a pattern at those stops? In other words, was his first order of business facilities, firing a coach, etc.? Looking for a pattern, an MO in his two prior stops.

Whitman entered a great situation at WashU. Many coaches have been there for decades, the previous AD was there for 25 years. WashU was in terrific financial shape. But Whitman only built on those things. I talked with long-time WashU football coach Larry Kindbom  this week and he had nothing but great things to say about Whitman, saying he was pretty bummed Josh left but excited for him.

UW-La Crosse though was a different story, however. Whitman took over a program that eventually was cited for three NCAA violations for its financial aid practices (you can read about it here). He also turned over a lot of the staff there, hiring 14 new staff members and five new head coaches. One notable hire, football coach Joel Dettwiler, resigned this year after going 16-34 in five seasons. Whitman's UW-L hires in volleyball, swimming and diving and cross country have done very well. He vastly improved fund-raising and the facilities at UW-L and the Eagles won -- a lot. 

Can you stick a recorder in the AD's office for his initial meetings with Cubit and Groce?

I think I could get arrested for planting a bug without asking. So I can ask, but...

In all seriousness, I think Whitman will basically just ask questions. What do the coaches need? Why have they run into issues? Then he will evaluate them. I still think Groce gets another year, but if he does, he will be on a very short leash. I think Groce will need a vote of confidence immediately after the season though so he can try to gain some momentum in recruiting. Cubit should ask for a short extension to at least give him an opportunity. I think Whitman will be open to this, knowing how a two-year deal can affect Illinois' recruiting abilities. Plus, if by some miracle Cubit surprises and succeeds this season, Whitman has Cubit on a bargain of a deal moving forward.

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