Illini AD Josh Whitman: 'I wanted John Groce to be successful'

Illinois AD Josh Whitman discusses how he makes his list of candidates, the timing of landing Brad Underwood, the challenge of a men's basketball search and his recommendation of Jamall Walker

Josh Whitman reaffirmed the idea that every athletics director should have a list of coaching candidates, just in case he has to use it.

“You always have a list,” the Illinois athletics director said Monday after he introduced new basketball coach Brad Underwood. “Let me be very clear here. I wanted John Groce to be successful. I think I demonstrated that over my 13 months with him. But I also knew there was a possibility that that wouldn’t happen. I owed it to the university and to our fan base to be prepared.”

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But Whitman told Illini Inquirer that the list is tiered, not numbered.

“You put together your group, and then you start to look and say, ‘OK, this would be our first group and this would be our second group, third group,” Whitman said. “Then you start the vetting process in earnest. Obviously it takes two people to tango here, so there’s a lot of discussion to try and identify mutual interest and looking for people who want to be a part of this program and understand it for what it is. You have to try and find that intersection of the marquee candidate with the marquee interest.  That’s the whole crux of the deal. So it’s not an easy process. It’s a very fluid process. But as I said today, Brad Underwood was at the top of that list from the very beginning. Once we realized that mutual interest existed, then it was just a sprint to the finish line.”

Timing is everything

If Underwood had won NCAA Tournament games -- Oklahoma State lost to Michigan 92-91 in a first-round game on Friday in Indianapolis -- he may not have ended up the Illinois coach. The Illini may have introduced another name this week. Whitman wanted to act quickly and decisively in his search. Entering a second full week of a search did not sound like it was an option.

“You’re looking at multiple people, you’re looking at availability,” Whitman said. “Certainly we were excited about him, and I’m just thankful that we didn’t have to wait. Because obviously the longer people push into the tournament, then the longer the wait and the uncertainty sustains itself here and that’s not a viable situation. We were lucky in some sense that he became available when he did and that we certainly could act when we did. But if he would’ve continued to go on, that would have been tough on us.”

‘Patently false information’

Before he introduced Underwood, Whitman addressed an issue he had during his week-long search: what he called “the amount of patently false information that enters the universe.” He said those rumors and reports can complicate the process.

“I wasn’t out there reading the papers every day, but people were coming up to me on our staff saying, ‘You’ll never believe what’s out there now,’" Whitman said. "Needless to say, 95 percent of what was out there was false. A lot of it was a little comical knowing the full story myself. Certainly, it’s inevitable. In today’s world, people crave information. I love the passion of our fans. I love that people care about our program. So that part of it I think is unavoidable in today’s day and age.”

Whitman won’t force Underwood's hand on Walker

Whitman gave Jamall Walker a huge opportunity when the Illinois AD gave the longtime Groce assistant the title of interim head coach a week and a half ago. Whitman obviously has respect for Walker and would like for Walker, who was instrumental in putting together the Illini’s top-10 recruiting class in 2017, to stay on the Illini staff through the transition.

But he won’t force Underwood to keep Walker.

“I feel strongly about Jamall,” Whitman said. “I’m very grateful for the leadership he’s been providing our program through this interim phase and the work he’s done on behalf of the program for the last five years. What I don’t do as a matter of practice is mandate to any coach who they have to put on their staff. I don’t think that’s fair. But I will recommend, and I will suggest. He and I certainly had extensive conversations about Jamall. But ultimately that decision will be with (Underwood).”

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