Werner: Agonizing dismissal of Groce again shows Illini AD Josh Whitman's strong leadership

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman's dismissal of John Groce was personally painful but also professionally necessary

Josh Whitman couldn't hide his emotion as he explained the decision to fire one his dear friend. The second-year Illinois athletics director on Saturday was more somber than celebratory during his 23-minute address and press conference addressing the dismissal of basketball coach John Groce.

Whitman didn't hire John Groce. But while delicately discussing why he fired Groce, Whitman admitted that many of the Groce's personality traits are what he will be looking for in the first basketball coach he hires at Illinois.

But Groce simply wasn't a good enough coach during the past five season -- not at Illinois.

That was Whitman's message on Saturday. It's the same Whitman gave when he fired football coach Bill Cubit on his first official day on the job a year and six days earlier: Illinois is better than this.

Whitman and Groce grew close in their 13 months since Whitman's hiring. They are kindred spirits, both full of passion and optimism, intelligence and intensity. Their relationship was deeper than boss-employee. They went to concerts together. Whitman gave Groce big bro-hugs after wins.

In this way, Whitman is the opposite of his predecessor, Mike Thomas, a distant, CEO-type administrator. While Thomas spoke to the media often, he offered little support for his coaches and his boilerplate discourse

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1762015-buy-one-month-of-inq... But Whitman -- who displayed high aspirations and bold action when he hired Lovie Smith last year -- showed his dynamism on Sunday.

He can be as passionate and supportive as former Illinois AD and fellow UI alum Ron Guenther -- who often showed too much loyalty to his coaches -- but also have the conviction and clarity to make the decision that is necessary at the right time, even if its personally painful.

Whitman did not allow his admiration for Groce cloud that Groce simply didn't produce like an Illinois basketball coach must.

Groce finished his five-year tenure with the worst Big Ten winning percentage (.411) of any multi-year Illinois coach during the past century. Illinois never finished in the top-six of the Big Ten under Groce and will miss its fourth straight NCAA Tournament, something that hasn't been done since 1980 when Lou Henson was still trying to build Illinois out of the after-effects of the Slush Fund. Combined with Bruce Weber's final five seasons, Illinois basketball has missed seven of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments.

http://www.scout.com/college/basketball/recruiting/story/1762111-what-is... Whitman fondly remembers Illinois at its "peak." From 1983 to 2007, Illinois made 21 of 25 NCAA Tournaments and finished in the top-four of the Big Ten standings in 20 of 25 seasons. Illinois basketball won five of eight Big Ten titles from 1997 (the same year as Whitman's freshman football season) to 2005 (his first year as coordinator of special projects under Guenther in the Illinois athletics department).

But those days are growing more and more distant. Illinois basketball has largely been irrelevant for the past decade. Few high school basketball players remember the 2005 national runner-up team. Deron Williams is on his last legs in the NBA. Dee Brown retired from professional basketball. Roger Powell is a fast-rising assistant coach at Vanderbilt.

Failing to make a move now may have furthered the Illini's  growing irrelevance nationally, in the Big Ten and in the state -- especially with Northwestern and Illinois State coming off program-best seasons.

But Josh Whitman said "Not on my watch." He cares too much for Illinois. He too fondly remembers the frenzy of early 2000s Illini basketball and so desperately wants it back -- just like his fellow Illini fans.

"I was here ten years ago," Whitman said. "I saw the energy. I felt the environment at State Farm Center. We couldn’t find a ticket. Every game was an event, every fan was in an orange shirt, the waiting list was thousands of people long to get a season basketball ticket to an Illinois basketball game. I remember standing in the crowd and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the pregame video went on the board and it was ‘The Champ is Here’. Do you guys remember that? The Ali video, the movie ‘The Champ is Here’. I’ve never forgotten the feeling in that place when that team took the floor and that video was on the board. That’s what we’re striving for. Year in and year out. That was 10 years ago and if we’re not careful, it’ll be 30 years ago. That’s what I can’t allow to happen."

Whitman exhibits true leadership.  He inspires hope for his base. He exudes stability, even-handedness. He provides assurance in his "We Will Win" mantra.

He fully backs his employees with all his resources and heart -- until the day he decides he no longer can. And when he must cut the fat, he does so gracefully and humanely.

For the first time in a long time, Illinois fans should feel confident that they have the right man for the job.

Kudos to Barbara Wilson, the former interim chancellor, and the Illinois AD search committee for identifying Whitman. He is the leader Illinois athletics desperately needed at its nadir.

His hiring of Lovie Smith has re-energized the horribly underachieving football program, though the dividends of that pricey investment are years from being realized.

Now -- with deep pockets and charisma his predecessor lacked to sell this challenging-but-potentially-great opportunity-- Whitman endeavors to repair the program's most precious, proud program. He will do it alone, smartly denying the use of an expensive search firm. He's been thinking about this move for a year now and has his short list of candidates. Whitman must sell the job just like he sold the football job to Smith.

"I  think that ultimately a big part of my job," Whitman said. "To go out and be an effective recruiter of my own for potential candidates to be our next coach. I think we have unlimited potential."

This hire will be a tipping point for the Illini basketball program. Whitman is under immense pressure to hire someone who will end Illini basketball's decade-long downward trend.

But would you have more confidence in anyone else to take on the task?

"The future is bright," Whitman said. "The future for Illinois basketball is bright. It’s an unbelievable program with almost unmatched tradition. As we go off and hit the marketplace and start to consider different candidates, that’s what we’re looking for. Someone who understands the tradition that exists here. Someone that’s a great fit for the University of Illinois and the rich history that we have with our basketball program. Illinois basketball will stand up and make us all proud again and I’m excited to be a part of that proces

Illini Inquirer Top Stories