Werner: Whitman flips script on Day One

In his first day as Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman completely changed the perception of Illinois athletics

Watch Josh Whitman's full press conference on dismissal of Bill Cubit

CHAMPAIGN - What did you accomplish during your first day at your job?

Whatever it was, Josh Whitman likely put it to shame.

On his first day as the acting Illinois athletics director, Whitman re-wrote the script of the entire Illinois athletics program.

Whitman started his Saturday by lending men's basketball coach John Groce the vote of support the Illini basketball coach needed to boost his efforts to close on a possible program-changing 2017 recruiting class.

About an hour later, Whitman finally ended the hangover of the Tim Beckman era -- and the constant questions of instability in the fallout of Beckman’s misdeeds -- shocking the college football world by dismissing football coach Bill Cubit.

And to top it all off, Whitman instantly gave the Illini what it has lacked -- relevancy, identity and credibility -- by landing long-time NFL head coach Lovie Smith to replace Cubit.

In just a wee matter of hours on an unsuspecting Saturday, Whitman -- a 37-year-old former Illini football player -- put Illini fans, coaches, players, donors and Big Ten rivals on notice. He will not conduct “business as usual” at Illinois.

That approach -- of treating Illinois football as the second sport behind basketball, of the administration getting in athletics’ way, of waiting too long to take the necessary action -- has only led to failures.

"If there is a statement to be made, I think we've done that," Whitman said. "I think the people understand that we are going to do everything in our power to put our programs in a position to be successful. If we realize that a decision needs to made, we're not going to delay in making it.

"I see this as the first step toward what we ultimately want to build, and as most things are, this is a question of perspective. And this is the first very positive step toward developing that championship culture, that championship program that I know all of our fans and all of us hope to expect to see. So I think this is a very positive development in the history of our football program."

Setting a standard

Only time will tell if Whitman’s actions on Saturday will succeed. Some NFL coaches thrive in college (Bill O'Brien and Jim Mora Jr. to name just a few). Others have failed, including Whitman’s Illinois coach, Ron Turner, and former Bears coach Dave Wannstedt.

Smith, known as a "players' coach" with the Bears and Buccaneers, still must prove himself as a recruiter. He must assemble a capable staff, including the ever-important offensive coordinator position which proved to be his undoing in Chicago.

But Whitman’s move was bold and decisive. The former Division III athletics director, who led St. Louis Washington University until yesterday, proved he is no puppet.

He proved by landing Smith -- who undoubtedly will command a higher salary than any previous Illinois coach -- that he will invest more in Illinois athletics than any of his predecessors, and he proved that he can earn the support from administration and donors to make that investment.

"I'm very grateful to our board, our chancellor, our president," Whitman said. "I think we're all prepared to support this coach in a way that we have not in the past. I think it will make us very competitive as we go out to look for the next football coach."

National media outlets will now take an interest in Illinois. The kind of interest that has only been fleeting (BCS appearances in 2000 and 2007 that look flukey in hindsight). The kind of interest that will make recruits think twice about Illinois. The kind of interest that will take Illinois seriously again.

Cubit and Beckman made great efforts to build relationships at Illinois high schools. But Smith, a Texas native who led the Bears to one of the franchise’s two Super Bowl appearances (with Rex Grossman as his quarterback!), will turn heads.

Cubit hoped to build an identity. Smith brings an immediate identity, built around his Tampa-2 defense -- which Illinois was going to run this season anyway, led by former Smith staffer Mike Phair. Smith also will break a barrier at Illinois, becoming the first African-American and minority head coach of the revenue-generating Illinois sports (football and men's basketball).

More importantly though, Smith gives Illinois pertinence and purpose. Instead of another "will the AD fire the coach?" season, Illinois can now starting building behind a brand-name coach.

“We’re striving for a standard of excellence,” Whitman said. “The goal for us is a championship standard, and today we took a big step in that direction. "

Collateral damage

Of course, Whitman’s quick axe leads to a lot of collateral damage.

Cubit falls on the sword -- with a $985,000 buyout to ease the pain -- but he wasn’t Illinois football’s problem. He did an admirable job in unprecedentedly terrible circumstances. Illinois was lucky to have a competent former head coach (Cubit was fired at Western Michigan in 2012) when they needed to fire an incompetent one above him.

"This is no reflection on him," Whitman said. "He's a good football coach. He's a good man. But at the end of the day, we understood that allowing him to continue in that situation, as tenuous as it was, wasn't the most productive use of the next nine to ten months. We have recruiting to do. We have a team to care for. We have a group of people across the way who are very committed to trying to put what has been a very bumpy few months behind us. This decision allows us to start to do that."

Four Cubit assistants who just joined Illinois on Jan. 1  now head into a spring market that has a small demand for coaches. Even though those coaches know the cutthroat nature of the business, they all were told by Cubit -- who was told by administration -- that they’d have at least a year in Champaign.

"We will do right by everybody on that staff," Whitman said. "One hallmark of our tenure will be that we will treat people the right way when we have to make these kinds of difficult decisions."

Almost all of the Illini players, including some Class of 2016 recruits, will be led by their third head coach in a year. Some fifth-year seniors will be led by their fourth head coach at Illinois.

Cubit just signed a 23-man recruiting class 34 days ago. Though Illinois may allow some out of their national letters of intent, several won’t have many available options if they wanted to leave because most other programs filled their available 2016 scholarship spots already.

"I would ask all of them to be patient with us and see the direction that we ultimately go," Whitman said.

But Whitman showed Saturday that he’s willing to live with those burdens and make the necessary tough choices that ultimately help Illinois move forward, the job for which he was hired.

"When you make a decision to change football coaches, you throw a lot of things into chaos," Whitman said. "It's not something we do without great deliberation and thought. We never want to lose sight of that. We never want to lose sight of what this means for the people who are across the stadium."

What's next?

Whitman deemed this a move eventually necessary and didn’t waste nine months to make it. He acted as swiftly as he could (again, as quickly as he could) even if the ramifications or timing were -- as Kowalczyk would say it -- not ideal.

Anyway, he didn’t cause that bad timing. The administration that hired him did.

But, looking back, maybe it was the right move in the long run? After all, they landed an athletics director seemingly with the courage -- frankly, the cojones -- to make the necessary bold moves. That AD found a head football coach who immediately boosts the sagging Illini brand.

He did it Day One on the job.

Talk about a tone-setter.

"It's been an interesting first day, hasn't it?" Whitman said.

Who else is eager to see what he has planned for Day Two?

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