CHAMPAIGN - Please leave Josh Whitman alone on Saturday.
After two hectic weeks of firing and hiring high-profile coaches, the Illinois athletics director deserves a day off.
"I'm going to sleep a little bit," Whitman said Friday morning after he introduced Nancy Fahey as his new women's basketball coach. "I'm going to hold my daughter. Tomorrow's going to be a good day. I've had tomorrow circled for a while."
Whitman's necessary but arduous two-week remodel of the Illinois basketball program is complete.
On March 11, Whitman fired John Groce, who missed four straight NCAA Tournament. A week later, he stole Brad Underwood from Oklahoma State with a six-year, $18 million contract and on Monday introduced the new men's coach, who has made four straight NCAA Tournaments (three with Stephen F. Austin and one with Oklahoma State). Underwood is charged with reviving a former Big Ten giant that has missed seven of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments and finished in the top-four of the Big Ten just twice in the last 10 years.
On March 14, he fired Matt Bollant, who lost almost five times as many games during his five-year Illini tenure (61-94 overall record) as he did during his five-year tenure at Wisconsin-Green Bay (148-19 overall record). A week later, he stole Fahey, a six-time Division III national champion, from his former employer Washington University in St. Louis and gave her a six-year, $3.33 million deal. She is charged with rebuilding an Illini women's program that hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since 2003 and has finished higher than ninth in the Big Ten just once (fifth place in 2012-13, Bollant's first season) during the 10 seasons since Theresa Grentz left the program.
On Friday, Whitman reflected on how he just changed the course of Illini basketball history in a fortnight.
"It's been probably the most intense two or three weeks of my professional career," Whitman said. "A lot of balls in the air with the searches and the men's team continuing to play was challenging. Not enough hours in the day. But I feel really good about where each of those projects has ended up. I couldn't be more excited about Brad's leadership and Nancy's leadership and the direction of those programs."
The last two weeks has reiterated to Whitman that the Illini basketball programs should expect more.
"I don't know if I've learned as much as I've confirmed how strong the Illinois brand is and how much respect exists for Illinois basketball on both the men's and women's sides," Whitman said. "I think people see and understand what this program represents. The word is out that our program is headed the right direction and this opportunity that has existed a long time to be one of the preeminent athletic programs in the country, we're starting to realize that potential. We're starting to take strong steps in that direction. We're starting to see the responsiveness of that across the country. It's exciting to me."
Whitman, 38, entered Illinois with many questions. He won over many during his February 2016 introductory press conference. After all, the tall, charismatic lawyer from West Lafayette talks a lot -- and, as some like to say, he talks good.
But his walk is more impressive than his talk. Whitman takes quick, decisive action and then invests heavily into his programs.
Firing quasi-interim football coach Bill Cubit on his first day was bold enough, but hiring Lovie Smith two days later made national headlines. He then invested $4 million into Smith's staff, one of the top-three highest salary pools in the Big Ten, and will invest more than $130 million into a much-needed football facility construction/renovation.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1765154-werner-underwood-s-i... He traded in a men's basketball head coach who got hot at the right time at his previous spot (Groce finished higher than fifth in the MAC just once in his four years but made two NCAA Tournaments) for one that lost just once in 54 games in the Southland Conference and flipped Oklahoma State's record from 12-20 to 20-12. He also invested $850,000 into Underwood's staff, the highest salary pool in the Big Ten.
He traded in a women's basketball head coach with a sparkling mid-major record for one who won five national championships and 23 conference titles at a Division III school that operates like a small Division I program. He gave Fahey, who Whitman said was his top target from the beginning of the search, an assistant salary pool of $500,000, about $50,000 higher than the previous staff.
Both hires come with risk -- as all do -- but both come with almost universal approval from the basketball community, which has come away impressed with the Illini's young athletics director.
"These are the moments that I prove my worth," Whitman said. "This was a chance for me to show that the programs are heading in the right direction and to surround us with the right people, the right leaders. One one hand, it's been incredibly challenging. On the other hand, it's been unbelievably fulfilling to have the opportunity to bring new leadership and bring new vision to the program."
Now, after a media tour of St. Louis on Friday, Underwood and Fahey will get to work.
As reported by Illini Inquirer's Derek Piper, Underwood has agreed to a deal to keep assistant Jamall Walker on staff. Both visited three-star guard signee Javon Pickett last night, will visit five-star center signee Jeremiah Tilmon on Friday night and will visit four-star uncommitted guard Mark Smith on Sunday.
Fahey will get her personal affairs in order before meeting with her Illini players, which return from spring break on Monday.
But after his quick demolition and reconstruction of the Illini basketball programs, Whitman deserves a day off -- and a few years without having to break out his high-profile hiring suit.
"I hope so," Whitman said. "I hope I don't have to break these things out for a bit. I might not even shave tomorrow. We'll see what that feels like."