Josh Whitman and John Groce -- as the leaders of a Big Ten athletics program and basketball program, respectively -- needed to publicly address the state of Illinois basketball following a string of arrests during the last month. Whitman said at the outset of Thursday's specially-called press conference that when issues within his program cause public uproar or interest, he will not shy from public discussion. That's a smart policy. The press conference gave us more transparency and nuance than a carefully-constructed statement. Illinois must be seen as a program that addresses its issues, not hide from them. Though it's their job, it was reassuring to see Whitman and Groce each answer tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions on Thursday. They must if they want to rebuild public trust in the program.
Whitman and Groce accomplished a few things Thursday. First, they both made it clear that they take seriously the violent crime allegations against Leron Black (charged with felony aggravated assault), Kendrick Nunn (charged with misdemeanor domestic battery) and Jaylon Tate (charged with misdemeanor domestic battery). Second, Whitman made it clear to fans and -- more importantly -- recruits that his support of Groce has not wavered in the aftermath of these allegations. Despite his March 5 vote of confidence for Groce, Whitman needed to again give Groce this public support after the arrests again fueled speculation that Groce could be fired. Illinois basketball is about to enter significant spring and summer recruiting periods, where it hopes to lock up two or three more significant pieces to what could be a program-changing Class of 2017 -- specifically Jeremiah Tilmon and Jordan Goodwin. If Whitmanis going to keep Groce -- even just for the short-term -- he must give Groce the ammo he needs to be successful. On Thursday, that included emphatic support.
Though, Whitman went stronger than I thought he would in his support of Groce. He went as far as to say that Groce's fate will not change even if one or more of his players are found guilty of the violent crimes. Of course, Whitman is not contractually obligated to these words. If he deems that he can land a coach who can better lead the program in the long term -- like he did with the surprise hire of football coach Lovie Smith -- nothing is holding him back from reneging on his word in a month or two (and many would understand it). Some are saying Whitman hitched his wagon to Groce. That's not true, in my opinion. Groce has three years left on a contract that Whitman didn't sign. Whitman hitched his wagon to Smith leading an Illini football revival. All Whitman seemed to do Thursday was give Groce a year's worth of rope. Entering his fifth year, Groce must win -- even if some of the players in legal trouble don't return. Groce must recruit a class that sets a clear path for future success and hope for championship contention. And Groce must do all he can to keep his players out of jail. He has a make-or-break year to prove it. Whitman just spent a lot of resources on fixing football. He also showed with that hire that he doesn't like to make a move without already having the next move solidified. Whitman might not be prepared to make a move on basketball at the moment. But that likely will change unless Groce changes the program -- soon.
Whitman and Groce on Thursday seemed to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Both attempted to make it clear that they take the allegations seriously. But neither could emphatically denounce their players' alleged behavior without incriminating them. Both have said that they will let the legal process take its course before making decisions on the futures of the three players, who all are suspended indefinitely from team activities (which right now includes everything but physical treatment from trainers and doctors). Some fans wanted Groce and Whitman to mirror their anger. What Groce and Whitman gave was solemnity. It was a measured, sometimes calculated approach by two individuals caught between the initial raw emotion of the allegations and the clarity of the resolution of the legal cases. Understandably, some probably felt there wasn't enough passion or urgency from Whitman and Groce, who were trying to delicately toe the line between supporting their student-athletes (who have not yet been proven guilty) and sending a message.
Whitman and Groce should have taken a harder stance on domestic violence. Both repeated that they take these incidents seriously. Both repeated that they want their players to make good choices (fairly, they were asked if domestic violence was just a bad choice). But neither took a hard stance on domestic violence with Whitman calling it a "hot-button issue." While I assume Whitman and Groce both denounce domestic violence, neither verbalized that on Thursday. Whitman could have said, "We have zero tolerance for domestic violence and will not stand for it in our program" -- all without incriminating Tate and Nunn. It just would have sent a clear message to players and supporters.
Groce made a mistake in passionately defending his culture Thursday. "I know what we’re about," Groce said. "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 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.” There are a lot of good people and student-athletes in Groce's program. But one-third of his scholarship players have been arrested since August, three of which are facing trial for violent crimes. Yes, they are just allegations at this point. But defending his culture this hard came off a bit tone-deaf.
Were any solutions provided? Not many. Groce said he vets recruits to make sure they fit his standards, on and off the court. Groce said he has constantly addressed off-the-court behavior with his team during his time at Illinois. He said he met with his team multiple times to address the issues of the past month. Groce said character is at the forefront of all he does and that he that becomes an even larger emphasis now. Groce and Whitman seem to think the staff's current methods with a little more emphasis will prevent recurrences of the alleged behavior. I don't have the answers -- I also don't know the facts of the cases yet -- but I'm not sure Groce or Whitman do either. That's partly why college coaches, leading 18- to 23-year-olds, rarely sleep easy.
The recent incidents created dialogue about the responsibility of coaches over players' off-the-court behavior. In this space, I've made it clear that a coach can not be fully or even mostly responsible for a players' off-the-court behavior or choices, especially in isolated incidents. But I think it is fair to question a coach's responsibility when his program shows a disturbing trend of bad or violent behavior -- like three arrests in a month or four arrests in eight months. But Whitman, a former player and a current athletic director, gave his view on the discussion: “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,' he said. "But it’s all a part of this growth and education process we strive for with our student-athletes.”
Was the press conference worth it? In my opinion, yes. The leaders of the basketball and athletics program needed to publicly address the issues and answer tough questions. But due to the ongoing legal cases, Whitman and Groce were hamstrung on what they could say and how passionately they could address the alleged actions. Some fans wouldn't be happy on Thursday unless Groce was gone -- mostly due to his on-the-court resume -- and won't be until he is (or until he wins). But Thursday wasn't about his on-court failures. It was about acknowledging and addressing the issues in the Illini basketball program. Thursday provided a few answers (Illinois takes these thing seriously and Groce isn't going anywhere) but not all or enough answers (due to the legal process continuing).
Whitman and Groce spoke Thursday but probably didn't say enough to turn the angry, doubting mob into an understanding, patient congregation of believers. Did they rebuild that public trust? Maybe not. Did they give resolution to all our questions? No. But ultimately, results in court during the coming months and on the court next winter will answer what they could not.