CHAMPAIGN - Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman lent a vote of confidence to basketball coach John Groce on March 5, Whitman's first official day on the job.
Following two player arrests last week for separate charges of domestic violence -- the third Illini player arrest in a month -- Whitman on Thursday felt the need to reiterate his support win a specially-called press conference.
"Obviously, I came out a few weeks back and made some strong statements regarding John and his continued leadership of our men’s basketball team," Whitman said. "That position has not changed. I continue to believe strongly in the leadership that John is providing."
That leadership has been questioned by a large contingent of fans, donors and media though following last week's arrests of junior guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, both of whom were arrested for charges of domestic battery. Both plead not guilty and await separate April 20 pre-trial hearings. Last month, sophomore Leron Black was arrested on a felony charge of aggravated assault for which he plead not guilty. He allegedly threatened an Urbana nightclub bouncer with a knife. He has a pretrial hearing set for April 19.
But those allegations of violent crimes seemingly have not shaken Whitman's support of Groce, who is 77-61 overall (29-43 Big Ten) over four seasons at Illinois and has missed three straight NCAA Tournaments.
“So often now we live in an instant gratification society and people want to assume that the best way to handle a situation is what often can be construed as the easiest way," Whitman said. "They want a clean slate. That’s not always the best decision. My job, as you can all can appreciate, isn’t to make the easy decision. It’s to make the right one. In certain cases, as in this one, the right decision is to roll up our sleeves, get down in the trenches and work hard with someone you trust, who you value, who shares the same vision you have for a program and to work together to put that program as successful as we all want it to be. There are times to make changes. I’ve shown that we’re not afraid to do that. And there are times, like right now, to get down and to get to work and to build something that we can all be proud of. That’s where we are as a program.”
Whitman and Groce declined to comment specifically on the allegations or players, citing the legal process is ongoing. But Whitman said the results of the legal process will not have a direct effect on his support of Groce.
"I disagree that if any of these allegations are true that that necessarily requires that John no longer be our men’s basketball coach," Whitman said. "The reality is that there are a lot of great things happening in our men’s basketball program right now. Our student-athletes are achieving academically. They’re doing good work in our community, and they’re doing the right things in the gym to continue to build themselves into a championship caliber program. I’ve had an opportunity these last few weeks to spend a lot of time with John, sit down and share philosophy, to talk through values, to understand the things that we’re doing with our men’s basketball team, and to make sure we’re doing these things, accomplishing our goals and building championship students, championship athletes, championship people. I have great confidence that John is the person to lead us in that respect.”
Key quotes from Thursday's press conference
Whitman: “We recognize that we have had a number of situations here. I understand people’s concerns. I understands their frustrations. I understand them because I share them. I certainly understand the frustrations and concerns that people feel about the allegations that have surfaced involving some of our men’s basketball student-athletes. These are serious allegations. We will not shy away from that. We recognize how important and concerning those allegations could be and are.”
Groce: “Very concerned. Very concerned about the allegations. There’s no question about that. That’s why we’re sitting here today.
“The message is crystal clear really to all of those guys. They know that we are here to support them. They know that we believe in them. We also know it’s our job to continue to teach them to make great choices and decisions. At the same time, there’s an accountability piece in this. They will be held accountable to the standards of being an Illinois basketball player, and those standards are high.”
On next steps
Whitman: “We have to find that balance between helping our student-athletes growing into responsible adults while also maintaining this high standard for our program. Most of the time, those two goals align. Every once in a while, there’s some tension and we have to work through those individual circumstances and find the best outcome for our program and our student-athletes. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.
“We’ve already started to talk about strategies, approaches, things we can do with our team and with our fans that can again, start to restore that public confidence in Illinois basketball. This program means a lot to a lot to a lot of people. That’s a responsibility John and I take very, very seriously. We look forward to engaging our fans, our alumni, everyone who has a vested interest in our program in moving this thing forward.”
Groce: "Choices, in a nutshell, is what I’ve talked to tehm about. Making good choices. We spend an inordinate amount of time addressing that with examples in team meetings, small group discussions about it and one-on-one. We wear it out, and we’ll continue to do that. And we’ll continue, as Josh and I have more that discussion, to even enhance that programming. Because we want them to leave her making good choices, making good decisions."
“There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, more important than character. Nothing. Is that at the forefront of my mind right now? There’s no question about that.”
Groce: “I think we do a lot. I think we’ve demonstrated that we will hold our players accountable. At the end of the day, do I think they’re not listening? No. I think they are. I think they have made some bad choices. Again, we take this seriously, the concern seriously, the allegations seriously.
“During the recruiting process, we evaluate all 16 players who are on our team this past year and look at a lot of different things -- personal things, academic things, basketball things, skill set, talent -- a lot of different things to find out if they’re a great fit for the University of Illinois. We make a commitment as a staff that we’re going to bring in players and student-athletes that fit well here, that fall in line with our core values and our standards.”
On perception of program
Groce: “We spend a great deal of time with our players. Team meetings, small groups, one on one, educating them on choices and making great decisions. I do think there’s a difference between choices and discipline. In terms of discipline, we’ve shown -- as you well know -- in the past that there is an accountability piece to this and we will discipline our players if need be, if substantiated. Obviously we want to be very firm but fair. I understand. I’m the leader of the men’s basketball program and I always look inward. For us right now, I say, ‘What can we control?’ And that is the environment, the culture, our discipline when it comes to certain behaviors, consequences. At the end of the day, do I think we can control choices 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week? That’s hard. We can educate them, and we are committed to doing that. Josh and I are committed to doing that, and we’re going to continue to do that at a more pronounced level.
“I don’t worry because I know who’s in our locker room, meaning the culture piece. I know what we’re about. I know how we do it. I know who the guys are in our locker room. Am I concerned? Yes. That’s why we’re here today, and understandably so? Antennas up? Yes. Do I think we have guys in there, a lot of guys, who are bought into our culture, that believe in what we’re doing and where we’re going? Absolutely. It’s hard for me to take three incidents, alleged incidents that we’re talking about David, and lump them into the whole. Obviously, I’m in the battle with those guys, so I get to see it from a little bit different perspective, but I believe in those guys. I know they believe in what we’re doing and how they do it.”
Whitman: “When a kid (makes a mistake), it doesn’t make the parent a bad parent and it doesn’t inevitably make the coach a bad coach. But it’s all a part of this growth and education process we strive for with our student-athletes.”
On his message to fans
Groce: “We’re excited about having the opportunity to move forward. For us, nothing has changed. I believe in where we’re going. I believe in our players, in our staff. Can we get better? We’re going to get better. We always evaluate in the spring ways to get better. We want to be on the cutting edge. Get some guys healthy. Continue to move the thing forward. Continue to move recruiting forward. We’re excited about all of that. But we’re confident that we can continue to move and take the necessary steps forward to build a championship-caliber basketball program that our fan base and our alums, that the university, that our community is very, very proud of and wants. We believe that. We just at this point have to stay the course and continue to build.”