Josh Whitman gave you a vote of confidence this week. What did that mean to you?
Matt Bollant: "A great deal. A new athletic director, obviously we haven't spent a lot of time together, so he came in and we had a chance to talk the week before a little bit. Then he met with players, met with my assistants. I encouraged him to do that. 'Go talk to our players, see what they think of me and see where we're at.' That's his job, to evaluate our program and say, 'Where are we at, and what do we need to do moving forward? Is this the right staff to do that?' Obviously, he decided it was."
You seem confident in yourself.
Bollant: "I think obviously it helps to have the success I've had other places (148-19 record at UW-Green Bay, 134-36 record at Bryan). I've been a part of six programs that have had the best year in school history when I've been a part of it. But at the same time, (Whitman has) got a job to do. He's coming in and he has to evaluate. Obviously, it's more than fair to look at our program. We're not where we want to be. How are we going to move this forward and how are we going to make it better."
John Groce is going through this now. You had ugly allegations of mistreatment and racism against your program that were found unsubstantiated. Yet, still there's this cloud around your program. How do you combat that? How did you combat that?
Bollant: "One, just control what I could control. Obviously it was a hard spring last spring and there were a lot of times we were asked, 'What's going to happen with this? What's going to happen with that?' I didn't have those answers. But I knew today I could control today and control recruiting. We were really fortunate to land a great class even though we were going through a really tough period. I know one of the dads when this first came out, a kid that had verballed to us early in her junior year asked if she wanted to reopen and not go to Illinois. She said, 'No, I trust Coach Bollant. I know him. I like him, and I want to go play for him.' We did have one other recruit, Brandi Beasley, she came on campus and verballed. She was like, 'I didn't know any of this.' We thought she had. We thought her AAU coach had talked to her, so she just took some time to soak it all in. I said, 'Great, do that.' I came down to do a home visit and spend more time. Through that, she kind of got the trust in us and our program, (assistant coach LaKale) Malone and (assistant coach Tianna) Kirkland and decided, 'Yeah, I wanted to be there.'"
It's obvious the first couple years here at Illinois didn't go the way you wanted (52-72 overall record, 19-47 Big Ten). You and John Groce are both kind of going through a second rebuild here. Is that fair to say that you've had to reset in the past year and had to go through another building of this program?
Bollant: "Yeah, I think obviously it is. Our second year was kind of the rebuild year. First year we had two really good seniors (Karisma Penn and Adrienne Godbold) so the second year was more like the typical first year. Last year, we were really close. Had Ivory Crawford not gotten hurt, we probably would've played in the NCAA Tournament and probably headed in the direction we thought we probably could be. Then you lose Amarah Coleman and you lose Jacqui Grant (who both transferred to DePaul and accused the program of mistreatment and racism), two starters and two kids who are really talented. You're just not where you need to be talent-wise in the Big Ten."
Why will the program get better?
Bollant: "One, we have three kids returning that averaged double figures. We've got Chatrice White who is second-team all-conference, played on the USA Team, will go into her junior year after averaging 18 (points) and 10 (rebounds) as a sophomore. Alex Wittinger, who was on the all-freshman team, and was just starting to really take off and then breaks a finger, comes back and two days later sprains a thumb on the other hand. She played with two splints the rest of the year. Those two players are really good. They're both were on their respective all-freshman team. Two post players that can really play. Cierra Rice was (Freshman of the Week) two weeks and averaged 14 (points) a game. We have three players who averaged double figures. We're still young. Chatrice is a junior. Those two kids will be sophomores. I think Jaylene Kirkpatrick had a good freshman year at the guard.
"We add Brandi Beasley who I think is going to be one of the best point guards in the country. We have some pieces coming in. Ali Andrews who is a 6-2 post and really can do a lot of things. She had about as good of a high school career as just about any kid who's ever come to Illinois. She had 2,500 points (at Huntley) playing in the top division and was the unanimous AP All-State selection, the only kid in the state to get that voting. We have some talented kids coming in. Obviously, we have to keep adding pieces. We didn't have depth this year. Our depth was poor. We got hurt when we rotated off the bench. We need more post players. We have Sarah Overcash, another 6-2 kid coming in who's a good rebounder and talented kid. We'll have more pieces and we just have to continue to add to that."
I think the thing that worried most of us when all of this stuff went down is that you had people you recruited that decided to transfer out of here. You had an assistant (Mike Divilbiss) who was your right-hand man who you decided to part ways with because you said you wanted more of your voice. Do you feel like that is past you? Do you feel like the program has moved on from that?
Bollant: "Yeah, I do. I feel like we need to continue to go through the building phase but in the recruiting phase, we do have a 2017 committed to us. We have some great kids coming in during April. Obviously, I can't talk about them until they sign their letter of intent. We'll have hopefully another kid signing a letter of intent this spring as well. We have some very positive things going on. I think those things have us excited about going forward. Obviously, getting those kids on campus is huge. If you have some of the top kids in the country coming on campus, you have to feel good about what you've done, the legwork we've done in the last 12 months."
What have you learned most as a coach here? At Wisconsin-Green Bay it almost had to feel like it was easy at some point. Obviously, it takes a lot of hard work to do what you did there. But what have you learned most as a coach through your struggles here?
Bollant: "There's some good things. I don't know if this is a positive, but I think I am so trusting of people. I think that's something I can be a little naive with people. I think there were some things that came up during the year, some red flags that I probably should've played a little bit closer attention to that I think I just believe the best and thought the best of people and some of those things came back to hurt me a little bit. I probably needed to question things more and if there is a red flag is up, make sure you check into these things. One thing I told the assistants -- and this was before any of this happened -- our players I'd meet with some of them weekly, and they don't always feel comfortable sharing where they're at with me. I'm the head coach, which is almost the principal. Even if my approach is great or my spirit is great, they still feel like, 'You're the one making decisions on our playing time.' I encourage my assistants to spend more time with the players, just do whatever to hang around them so they feel like they maybe have a place to share if they are struggling with something. We did a lot of that this year, and I think that was helpful with our current players. We were putting that in place well before any of this stuff came up, and I think it's been a good step as well."
I tend to be more of an optimist. I like to expect the best in people. But yeah, sometimes that can be naivety.
Bollant: "I don't want to change who I am. It's a good quality. But at the same time, when you hear things, I think it's worth checking into. Or I just think sometimes being careful of what you say and how you say it around people and understanding that people aren't always going to have the same heart you do. Sometimes they're going to handle things differently."
Obviously, this is a big year for you and your program. What can we expect, what do you expect out of your program?
Bollant: "We've got to be better, no question about it. We have to win more games on the court. I think we competed in a lot of games this year despite a short bench and even with probably the lack of talent we had. Next year, we have to go from competing to winning more games. Certainly, do that in the Big Ten. We had a good non-conference. We were 7-1 and beat some good teams, and then Cierra Rice gets injured and Simone Law is not able to play. Then we go to 18 conference games in a short period of time, and just physically we were just weren't ready for that. I think we're going to be better physically, but certainly we have to win more ball games. Everyone understands that."
Last offseason was a whirlwind for you. What's the most important thing this offseason for your program?
Bollant: "Just getting better. We have a lot of good kids returning: Alex, CiCi (Cierra Rice), Chatrice, Jaylene, those kids have to get better and we have to make them better. Then just adjusting our system a little bit. We're going to run a little bit more of what Tony Bennett runs at Virginia. We tried to switch what we ran at Green Bay and it just hasn't worked with some of the rule changes and the size in the Big Ten. So changing our system a little bit and making it fit a little better with Chatrice and Jaylene and some of our players. Then just those kids getting better and those kids being ready to win on the court."