Opening Statement by Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman:
Tough day, as you can imagine. It’s hard to tell one of your good friends that the job he has loved isn’t one that he can continue to be in. I probably have a unique appreciation for that, given how excited I am to be in this role, you can imagine how hard it would be to have somebody tell me that I couldn’t do this anymore.
Lot of things about John Groce that I hope we can celebrate as he makes his exit from the basketball program. Unbelievable optimism and energy. He’s someone who cares first and foremost for our student athletes. We never had any concerns about how he treated them. Our athletes left here better people, better students, better athletes. Wonderful, engaging member of our community. He was an intelligent, strong role model.
When I met with him today, I told him that there are so many things about you, that would be on my list for a head coach. That’s absolutely true. The challenge for me is that my decisions have to be based on what’s in our best long-term interest. And for us, we have a basketball program that we expect to compete for Big Ten and National Championships, year in and year out.
And I was here at the peak. I was here ten years ago, 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.
I’ve been evaluating the basketball program since basically I walked in the door a year ago. This wasn’t the culmination of one game, it wasn’t a single moment where it was ‘this is it, this can’t continue’. This was an assessment that’s been going on for a long time. Made the decision today, rather than maybe after tomorrow for a few reasons. One, I felt like after the game on Thursday I was able to sit down with some of our senior folks and really take full stock of the program. I was able to reach a point of peace with the decision that I felt was necessary. I’m not someone who makes a decision like that one to dally around and wait. I didn’t think it would be fair to John, to the other people in the program if I knew what I wanted to do but pretended that I didn’t. But also we’re in a very competitive marketplace. This is essentially a game of musical chairs and we don’t want to be the person left standing when the music stops in terms of identifying our next coach. We need to put ourselves in the right position to go out and start to move more aggressively to identify who that next coach might be.
This afternoon, I met with John at about one o’clock. I talked with him about my decision. He handled it exactly as I thought he would. Grace, humility. His first concern was his family, his second thought was with his players and his third thoughts were with the university of Illinois. Nowhere in there did he ask questions about himself, he was immediately thinking about other people. I was very appreciative of his professionalism and the relationship that I hope I can continue to have with him. We followed that meeting with a meeting with the team and with the coaching staff. We communicated with the recruits and look forward to having conversations with them in the days ahead.
We will begin our search immediately. I can tell you that there will not be an announcement on Monday. I told you that when we went through the football process, that was a very unique process. We won’t be in the position to move that quickly, this will be a more traditional process than what we went through a year ago. I’d also remind you that a lot of great coaches are still coaching. They’ve got programs that they’re leading through the post-season and we want to be respectful of their obligations.
A couple final thoughts, then I’ll wrap it up and take any questions. First, I just want to remind people in the room and just as importantly, our fans that some good people lost their jobs today. And I understand the interest and that some people want to celebrate today, but today is not a celebration day. Today is a day where we recognize that there were a bunch of people who worked really hard on the behalf of the university over the past five years. I think it’s easy to forget that these aren’t people on a reality TV show, they’re not actors on a play. They are real people, with real dreams and real aspirations and real fears and real families.
We had a rough day today. So the cameras are going to go off and the writers are going to go away and they’re still going to have to pack up the boxes, find a new job, put their houses on the market, be away from their families. Let’s be respectful of that. Understand, I wish people could see all the effort and energy that goes into running a high-major basketball program. The sleepless nights, the anxiety, the interest. It’s an incredibly intense experience and these guys over the last five years have laid it on the line for this university. So we all owe them that debt of gratitude.
Last thing I’ll say and then I’ll take questions: The future is bright. 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 process.
When you hired Lovie, you made an unprecedented investment. Do you expect the same thing with basketball?
Whitman: I do. As I said with football, I’ll say it again with basketball. We understand what’s necessary to be competitive in today’s environment and we’re willing to do what we need to do on the financial side to be sure that we get the best coach for our program. I would caution people thought that dollars don’t necessarily equal quality. Just because someone might be a 2.5 million dollar coach doesn’t mean that they’re any worse than a 4.5 million dollar coach. Let’s look at the substance behind the person before we hang a dollar figure on them and equate that to how good they are.
Are the other assistant coaches going to work with the interim head coach Jamal Walker?
Whitman: They will. The rest of the coaching staff will stay intact. We expect that Darren Hertz will be elevated from the special assistant position to one of the actual assistant coaches on staff. Those guys have laid their hearts on the line for the last five years and they are committed to the end.
Will you consider Jamal Walker in your head coaching search?
Whitman: I really don’t want to comment in any specificity on the search. I will tell you that we’ll consider anybody in the search. We’ll leave no stone unturned in trying to identify the right person. So I’m certainly not ready today to start taking people off the list.
Did Groce want to coach in the NIT?
Whitman: I think that if John would have had his choice, he would’ve liked to coach into the postseason. We felt like this was the right move for our program, to go ahead and make a clean break today and put Jamal in the Interim capacity. I appreciate John, of course I appreciate everything about him. One thing that John is not, is a quitter and certainly he wanted to go out on his own terms and I’m grateful for that, but we felt like the break today was the right move.
What do you look for to make sure that it’s not 30 years since our basketball program peaked?
Whitman: It starts with leadership. There’s no magic formula to this stuff. You find the right leader, you surround him with great resources and then you get him the room to go off and do the right job. And we have to go out and find the right person. It’s imperative that we do that.
Are any other assistants being let go?
Whitman: As typically what would happen, when you remove a head coach, all the assistants are put on notice that their jobs will be ending as well. Certainly, the new coach will have the opportunity to have conversations with the new coach and meet with the outgoing assistanst. And if he wishes to retain any of them, that’d be his decision. But there’s the expectation that they’ll likely move on to other places.
Was the declining attendance a factor in your decision?
Whitman: Any effect? Sure. Did it have the most important effect? No. Certainly basketball, like football, is different than evaluating soccer, tennis, track, any other sport, where there is a revenue to it. And I’ve said this in a lot of other settings before, but those two sports really pay the bills for the entire operation. So that is a consideration but I wouldn’t call it a driving force.
How big of a factor was the 9th ranked recruiting class and how confident are you that you can retain them?
Whitman: It’s certainly an important consideration. I’ve gotten to know most of those recruits throughout the process and look forward to talking to them over the course of the weekend. It did complicate things, because it’s unusual to have a program perform like ours had over the last few years but to have a recruiting class that’s as highly rated as ours is this year. So I hope that they give us every opportunity to bring in a dynamic new coach. Give that new coach a chance to build a relationship with them and continue to be a part of the fighting illini. We’re certainly excited about them and I look forward to talking to them over the next few days.
Important traits for the next head coach?
Whitman: I think it’s a little early to put that list out, but I think a lot of things that anyone else would identify. Certainly you’d want to find, I’ve already used this word once, fit is really critical to me. You want to find someone who appreciates the university of Illinois and wants to be a part of this program in the long term. I think you want to find someone who ideally has head coaching experience. Certainly, a dynamic recruiter is critical. Someone who is a strong leader, high integrity, basketball as you can know can be a pretty slippery business. That’s one thing that I can say for John and his group is that I never lost sleep over what our basketball staff was doing out on the recruiting trail or with any other part of their work. So that will continue. It’ll be a hallmark of our program. I’m sure there are other things, but those are a few that I can think of off the top of my head.
When does the coaching search get started?
Whitman: The process starts today. We’ve certainly been thinking about this for awhile. The decision was made Thursday, just executed today. We have had people reach out to us for some time, there’s been speculation around the position for a while, but we’ll get started in earnest today.
Did the uproar from fans influence this decision?
Whitman: We have great fans. We have some of the best basketball fans in the country and we’ve seen that this year. Granted, the team didn’t perform as well as we’d like but we had two great sellouts. We had a wonderful environment there for the Michigan State game a week ago so our fans continued to answer the bell at the very critical moments. Grateful for their support. I would say that there is an awareness of how people feel and I’m not sitting here and reading everything that everyone has to say. I think certainly the way they express themselves in terms of buying tickets, not buying tickets is a consideration. But at the end of the day, I have to make a decision that I think is in the best interest of the program. And the fan voice is a voice but it’s certainly not the biggest voice in making these decisions.
If they had made the tournament this year, would you have kept John?
Whitman: It’s interesting, because there’s some people out there who say that we’re going to make the tournament tomorrow. One of the reasons that I thought it was important to make the decision today was to make it very clear that this decision is based on our performance and it’s not contingent on how a third party assesses that performance. So if we’re fortunate enough to get a bid tomorrow in the NCAA’s or the NIT, that was not a critical part of the decision once we reached that point late last week.
If you do get an NCAA tourney bid. What’s the coaching scenario going to be because Jamal Walker has that 2-game suspension.
Whitman: Certainly aware of that, we’ve had some internal discussions and we’ll deal with that when it comes to it.
Did you have discussions with Groce about expectations before the season?
Whitman: I did. Certainly John knew that this was a big year for him and our program. But in terms of specifics, I’m always cautious. Those of you that know me know that I don’t like to paint myself into a corner. So I never said that if you do these things you’ll be here or if you don’t do these things you won’t be. But I think he had a strong understanding of what we were looking to accomplish over the course of the year.
Do you anticipate using a search firm to help find the next coach?
Whitman: I don’t.
How did the conversation go with the players?
Whitman: The conversation went fine. It’s a difficult moment and I can relate to it on a personal level. It’s pretty intense. You spend a lot of time with those people. There’s practice, there’s travel, you see a lot of very emotional ups and downs. Wins, losses. Playing time, no playing time. These guys are really their surrogate parents when they’re here on our campus. So a lot of emotion. People certainly care about their coaches, but I think I’ve worked really hard in my 12 months here to build a relationship with our team and I hope that they have confidence and trust in me to make the best decision regarding the future of the basketball program. I sensed that was the case today.
Will they be practicing tomorrow?
Whitman: You’ll have to check with them. I think they’re scheduled to practice tomorrow.
Did you talk to the recruits or did you say that you will talk to them this weekend?
Whitman: I communicated with them. But I have not spoken to them.
How do you sell this program?
Whitman: I think that ultimately a big part of my job. 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. We have 170 million dollars that we just dumped into the State farm Center to make it arguably the best collegiate game venue in the country. Unbelievable tradition, obviously one of the top 15 programs in the terms of wins in the course of our history, the Orange Krush is unbelievable. Our fans, the atmosphere, there are a lot of things that can be sold about Illinois basketball. I think that is a much better story to tell than the fact that we’ve fallen on some hard times in the recent years. We haven’t won as many games as we would like. The reality is that there is no limit and we want this program to accomplish and obviously got a great recruiting class on the way in and we return a really talented, capable, nucleus, of players next year. So I don’t think that the cover is bare. I think that the cover is in a pretty good spot and we can be optimistic about what the future holds and we want to find a head coach that shares in that optimism and wants to be a part of leading this program to realize it’s full potential.
How important is speed in getting our next coach?
Whitman: You never sacrifice quality for speed. Certainly, in the perfect world, we’d like to do both. I’m not a big fan, and you’ve seen it in the few searches that I’ve done, I don’t like leaving things open for very long. I think it lends itself to a lot of uncertainty. You get current players who start thinking of going elsewhere, you get assistant coaches who don’t know what’s going on, you have recruits who are out there wondering what’s going to happen. So the less time that we can have it vacant, the better. But you’re not going to move fast and give up the opportunity to get the right person. So we have to try and find that balance.
Anything to clarify about the women’s program?
Whitman: No I don’t. I’ve had so much going on over the last couple weeks. I’ve been traveling a lot, I haven’t had time to complete an assessment of that program. I look forward to doing that in the coming days.
You’ve been the AD at other schools and have had to make tough decisions. Is this the toughest?
Whitman: It’s the most personal. It’s no secret that John and I have gotten to be good friends. I’ve gotten to admire a lot of things about him. And I hope that’s a relationship that can endure after he is gone. When you’re an athletic director you have to think about how you want to do your business. Sometimes I think Athletic Directors make the decision that they’re going to use the Heisman Pose and keep everyone at arm’s length because at the end of the day you may have to make a decision like this one. Other AD’s and I fall in this camp, choose to wrap their arms around people and get close to them and get in the fox-hole with them and be a part of their day-to-day experience and part of their day-to-day successes and failures. And the reality is that if I had kept John at arm’s length for the past year, today’s decision would have been a whole lot easier. But I would have had a lot worse time the last 365 some-odd days. But, I made the decision to pull him close and that made the last 13/14 months a lot better and today a lot harder. So on the whole, I would choose the way I do it, because I like all the other days. Even though it makes this day a lot tougher. But have I made harder decisions? Maybe. But never one that maybe hurt quite so much.
Did you talk with the recruits?
Whitman: Yeah so I communicated with all the recruits today. I texted all four of them, and I told them that I’d be in touch with them within the next couple days to actually speak with them about the process will be and what our timeline is. It’s hard in these moments, thanks a lot to you guys, thanks to how fast information travels, it’s really delicate to put together a process that at these moments where the right people are hearing about it at the right way. So sometimes, the result of that is that you start communicating with someone at an impersonal manner, but it’s more important to hear about it from you, than from someone else. So that’s how we approached the recruits today.
Opening Statement from former Illinois Men’s Basketball Coach John Groce:
Obviously, a lot of different thoughts over the last couple of hours as you’re trying to digest all of it. The one thing is, I told my wife this: equivocally, this is a much better place than what we started with on March 29, 2012 on a lot of fronts. We really focused on trying to do it with integrity, we did that. We focused on trying to help these guys, our players grow as people, students, and athletes. That was not a cliché. That was real.
There’s no question that numerous players over the course of five years did just that and I’m really proud of them for that. We had unprecedented success in the classroom, things that hadn’t been done in the history of the program. Proud of them for that. That’s something certainly that I’ve thought a lot about in the last couple hours here. That makes me smile. I’m proud of that and the staff in the back should be proud of that as well.
I’ll recognize those guys in a minute, but the first thank you goes out to the players. All those guys that we coached over the five years, certainly what they mean to me, our staff, our families, great respect for those guys. Battling through a lot of different things over the five years. Different challenges, some of which were clearly out of their control. The way that they fought, my goodness, obviously you saw that at the end of this season, just really proud of their fight and the way that they had a never-die attitude. Very appreciative of that. Certainly will be forever and I told them that today when I met with them. Once I coach you, you’re in for a lifetime. Really proud of the players and wanted to start by thanking them.
Want to thank our staff, many of which is in the back, some of our support staff is in the back as well. Some of the greatest staff and support staff. Those guys busted their tale and really committed to what we were doing, and how we were doing and what we were building and I felt very excited about that and those guys were certainly a big part of that. Also want to thank our loyal, unconditional fans. There’s a lot of them. So we’re very thankful for them.
And then I want to thank my family. I’ve got a great family. My wife Allison is a rock, my three kids. Cate was born here and her birthday is in two days. Here on Monday she’ll be two years old. We’ll have fond memories of that and many more. My boys, the opportunity they got to be around the program and the community here in Champaign-Urbana, the relationships that we developed. My neighbors in the back. Throughout my neighborhood, we have great ones throughout both communities in Champaign and Urbana. We just have great relationships.
I’ve had 171 text messages within the past 2 to 3 hours. Most of them from coaches, friends, family and a lot of people from here in the community. So we’re just very very blessed to have had the opportunity to be in such a special place and to make a difference. I know when we showed up here the first day, my wife and I talked and we tried to “keep it real”. We are here to impact people in the community first and foremost. This thing is about relationships. It’s about people. It’s all about people. It’s always about relationships. So hopefully in some small way, that happened. So hopefully we’ve given something to the Champaign-Urbana community because they’ve given a lot to us and we are certainly very thankful for that.
Were you surprised with the decision that was made?
Groce: Yeah. But that’s okay. I have great respect for him and he has the right to make any decision that he wants to make. Certainly respect him and the decision that he made.
Why hasn’t this program built up to what you wanted it to be?
Groce: I don’t know if I want to get into all of that. I’m one of those guys who wants to learn from every circumstance. I talk about that a lot with the players and we certainly have to do that ourselves as a staff and as human beings. Obviously haven’t had a lot of time over the last couple hours but I have thought about it a little bit. It’s no secret, and I’ve always told this to those guys in the back, that everything falls on me. I’ll take responsibility for everything. Now, has there been some challenges over the past five years that maybe were outside of our control here and there? Yeah. But at the end of the day, as I’ve taught those guys, the staff and the players. You start by pointing the finger at yourself and take responsibility for everything as a leader. And so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to get into the specifics about what things you could control, what things you cant. Certainly you guys follow, the community, the university, you’ve got a pulse for that. But now is not the time for that. At the end of the day, it’s all on me.
Is this a situation where you might find yourself more reflective?
Groce: I try to hit the reset button every year. In everything that we do, whether it’s a game we play or a philosophy in a certain area of our program. As a staff, we’re always trying to get better. So we’re doing that all the time anyways. I don’t know if this all of the sudden, makes me more reflective. I probably do that too much, but that’s my nature. I love to compete and I love to find ways to do things better. I’m a solutions guy and I’m not the other way around. I always tell people to don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. I don’t know if it makes me want to reflect any more than normal. I think people who are good at what they do, do that a lot. Because it gives them a chance to grow and get better.
Did you feel like you were coaching for your job?
Groce: No I did not. Obviously there is pressure every year. It’s the nature of the business. It is what it is but no, every day I woke up, got my cup of coffee, and went to work. And really did the best job we could to keep our guys focused. It’s hard when you’re 18-22 years old to keep them focused. But for me, it was one day at a time. My wife is great about that stuff. She really reminds me of that. She is that checks-and-balance person for me. We just took it one game at a time. I think it’s a big reason why we played so well late. I think those guys really understood the importance of every day and that every day mattered and that how they prepared. It was something they started living out and I think it’s going to start serving those guys well, not only now, but hopefully this next week and as their career starts moving forward, and hopefully in life.
How hard is it to walk away from the 9th best recruiting class in the country and what would you say to them?
Groce: It’s really hard. We worked really hard to put that class together. But I’ll have a conversation with them soon.
Do you have any regrets?
Groce: No I don’t have any regrets. Just because the way we do things. WE go at it. We compete every day, we fight. Sometimes you make decisions, it reminds me of a time a few years ago when one of you guys asked me after we played zone in the second half against Michigan in the comeback and we were leading and some of the players in the huddle wanted to play man on that last play. So I rode with the guys – which is something that I’d do again by the way, and someone asked me after the game, “hey, would you wish you went zone on that possession?”. Yeah I do now, now that I know the outcome. You know, it’s easy to do that when you know the outcome. I think that when real bullets are flying and you’re making real-life decisions, you have to rely on your experience and what it’s taught you and we did that a lot. There was always a play behind every single thing that we did and that we do. Everything is very thought out.
Did you want to coach in the NIT?
Groce: Yes I did. But that was not my choice.
What does the future hold?
Groce: That’s a great question. What I do know is that my wife was worried about my daughter’s birthday party on Monday. I will be there. My son plays in a concert on Tuesday night. He’s played in a couple others and I’ve had to miss those and he plays the trumpet and I’m going to be there. I do know that. I’m going to pray about it. Obviously, I’m not a guy who predicts future. You guys know that about me. But one thing I do know is that I love to compete, I love competition and I love coaching and the game of basketball. More importantly than that, I love building relationships, impacting people, building teams, getting guys to understand what it takes, how hard they have to fight, and to do that together. That I do know. What comes out of that, I don’t know.
When you get to talk to the recruits are you going to push the fact that they should come to Illinois and honor the commitment that they made?
Groce: Oh absolutely. This is a special place. I wish this place nothing but success. It’s a great place and I feel privileged to get to coach on that sideline for five years.
What did you say to Malcom and Tracy seeing that you’ve been with them the whole way?
Groce: It was hard. You know those are my guys. I love them. But I told them the most important thing is that they fight and that they keep fighting. And that’s what they’ve done. You know when a lot of people had them out in the pasture awhile back, they fought back. That’s what they have to continue to do and I’m confident that they will.
Was speaking today mainly to thank the people around you?
Groce: Yeah I think I did that earlier. Relationships are what this thing is all about. I have a lot of great ones over the five years. Even you guys. So it’s been a privilege and a real blessing. My wife feels the same way. We talked as this thing unfolded quickly this afternoon and we’re grateful. We immediately prayed and thanked God for the opportunity to be here. Numerous people impacted us and that’s what made it fun to be here. So hopefully in some small way, we impacted a few people too.
What’s next for you?
Groce: I love to compete, and build teams. Relationships are important to me. I enjoy all those things. So we’ll see. I’ll let God blaze those paths.
What’s your final message to Illini fans?
Groce: By no means am I trying to turn the page on these guys, they still have basketball to play this season, and there’s not going to be anyone that’s a bigger fan of those guys than me. So they have to come out and fight and I’m confident they will. But I also know who’s coming back and who’s on that road. And who was recruited and I know how those things were going. So that’s what I said earlier, I know what records have been broken academically I know who they’ve become, how they’ve matured and how they’ve grown and I know those seniors how much they’ve grown in the last 3 or 4 years. Now they look you in the eye, they know how to express themselves better. That’s life stuff. For me, the message is simple, it’s clearly in a better place in my mind then what it was march 29, 2012. So that part, they should feel good about.
Will you be at graduation?
Groce: We’ll see. The only thing I know is that I’ve got a few texts and phone calls to return, so anyone that’s out there who sees this, thank you. I’m not being rude by not getting back to you, I just have a lot of them. And then my daughter’s birthday party and dad’s concert. Graduation is a special day, and that’s why a lot of them come here to earn that degree and if I’m there great, if I’m not, then I’ll certainly reach out to them. That’s a lot of degrees in that class.