CHAMPAIGN - Josh Whitman appeared weary when he showed up for an in-studio appearance on my radio show on Monday evening,
When told his schedule has seemed daunting in his first three months as the Illinois athletics director -- hiring a football coach, handling multiple off-the-court issues in basketball, reaching out to donors and fans externally, assessing his staff internally and attending important Big Ten meetings -- Whitman gave a slight nod of the head with an eyebrow raise as if to suggest, "You're telling me!"
"Well, (it's) probably how it's been perceived from the outside," Whitman said. "...We've had challenges everywhere else I've been and it's part of the thrill of the job, if you will. If it was all going to be even and easy, it wouldn't be that exciting. The chance to come in and confront some of those challenges head on and try to deal with them as effectively as we can and put us in a better position going forward is one of the things that gets me out of bed every day."
On Tuesday, Whitman lifted some of the heftiest weight off his shoulders, bringing resolution to an embarrassing offseason of off-the-court drama for his men's basketball program.
There was belief earlier this week from some associated with the Illini men's basketball program that Kendrick Nunn would return to the team, even after pleading guilty to battery in a plea agreement that dropped two charges of domestic battery.
Nunn is a good basketball player, who averaged 15.5 points last season and was a potential All-Big Ten candidate as a senior. There was support to bring Nunn back with a suspension (8-12 games?) that was stern but allowed him to finish his collegiate career at and graduate from Illinois.
But Illinois had to take a stand. And Whitman stood tall, as he and basketball coach John Groce announced Nunn's dismissal on Tuesday. Against domestic violence and against the winning-above-all-else culture of college athletics, currently on display at Baylor.
Setting the standard
Whitman talked a big game when he was hired with his #WeWillWin mantra. But that came with the caveat that Illinois will win without compromising integrity. On Tuesday, he backed up those words -- and his word earlier this month that domestic violence is "intolerable" at Illinois.
"I try to let the coaches guide a lot of (the disciplinary process)," Whitman said on Monday. "I think it's their team. It's their student-athletes. I think my role is to be kind of the objective observer and kind of say, 'OK, that makes sense,' or 'That doesn't.' I have to be a little bit of the arbiter because they have a vested interest of having a successful program, and you can't divorce yourself from that and say, 'OK, this person is going to give me the best chance of having a good team.' So I have to be the person that stands there and says, 'OK, that makes sense to me and that doesn't' and be the one to bring a little objectivity to it."
The message is loud and clear: the rules and standards apply to all Illinois athletes, whether you're an All-Big Ten caliber player or the end man on the bench.
Whitman (and Groce) also proved that the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics will fight for and support their athletes (again, no matter their impact in competition) with their handling of the Jaylon Tate case. After the state's attorney dropped a charge of domestic batter against Tate, Illinois not only reinstated Tate but Whitman said publicly (and emphatically) that Tate was innocent.
While Whitman made an example of Nunn, let's make two things clear. First, Nunn is not receiving the entire wrath of a year of embarrassment for Illinois athletics -- nor should he. Some seemed to want Nunn dismissed just to repair Illinois' image. But he is not being punished for abuse inside the Illini men's football program, cultural issues inside the women's basketball program or any other wrongdoings inside the Illini basketball program (Leron Black's arrest, losing, etc.).
Nunn received a harsh punishment for his harsh crime, just as others before him.
Tim Beckman received the punishment (dismissal) for the football abuses. Allegations of abuse in the women's basketball program were deemed unfounded by an independent investigation, but Matt Bollant has received a round-about punishment for failure to address cultural issues (a mass exodus of talented players has all but buried the program). Black was suspended six games (four regular-season games) for pulling a knife on a bouncer. Athletic director Mike Thomas was dismissed (with a hefty $2.5 million buyout) for hiring coaches who worsened the programs, on and off the field/court.
Second, Nunn should receive an opportunity to play elsewhere -- whether it's collegiately (he'd have to sit out a season if he transfers before graduating) or professionally. Hopefully, Nunn learns from his mistake and becomes a better man for it. He should be rehabilitated not completely ostracized.
But Illinois needed to set its standard, that there is law and order inside its basketball program and its athletic department.
Cleaning up the mess
There's a new sheriff in town.
Whitman's cleanup of one of the Big Ten's wild, wild West Division departments -- Minnesota has plenty of issues too -- is ongoing.
He'll have to make decisions on the basketball programs' leadership in the next year. Athletic department leadership will change. It's already started.
Whitman named his deputy on Monday, promoting longtime associate Warren Hood to the No. 2 role in the athletics department Hood has spent three decades in the Illini athletic department, most of it under former AD Ron Guenther -- a mentor of Whitman. Thomas was brought in to modernize Illinois athletics and made some intelligent moves in marketing but in the process alienated core fans, mostly by hiring coaches who have failed to this point, both on and off the court.
Whitman also added Illini icon Dee Brown to the basketball program in a mentor/support staff role (he'll help with on-campus recruiting) that Whitman said was even more necessary "in light of some of the challenges that we've faced off the court here recently with that team."
Whitman inherited a mess three months ago. On Tuesday, he further proved -- as he initially did in March with the bold, exciting Lovie Smith hire -- he's willing to dig in and lift Illinois out of the garbage.
"It's just more of a feel process than anything," Whitman said. "I have a little bit of a leg up because I'm familiar with a lot of the (DIA) staff. I have an institutional comfort that allows me to traverse that process more quickly than someone who has no familiarity with the place or the people. I think we had a little bit of a jump start on some of those evaluations and figuring out who needs to be on the bus and what seats they need to be in.
"That to me is one of the fun parts of the job is really trying to put a structure in place that allows us to do and tackle the big challenges in front of us. It's really I think the most important thing I do and really the first thing I have to do. Before we can aggressively move out and charting this course, we need to have the team in place and in the right places."