Projecting solidarity and shirking accountability, Josh Whitman and John Groce held a joint press conference to say essentially that while they are concerned about the recent string of men's basketball player arrests, they won't be forced into acting rashly to appease fans clamoring for change over the tarnished state of the program's image.
"We live in an instant-gratification society," Whitman said. "People want to assume the best way to handle a situation is often construed as the easiest solution. They want a clean slate. That's not always the best decision. My job, as you all can appreciate, isn't to make the easy decision, it's to make the right one."
Of the three options Whitman had for handling the aftermath, he appears to have chosen to neither fire Groce nor remove the players involved, but to wait and see what happens as the legal process plays out and wave of public fury subsides.
"In certain cases, as in this one, the right decision is to roll up our sleeves, and get down in the trenches, and work hard with someone you trust, who you value, who shares the same vision you have for a program, and to work together to put that program in a position to be as successful as we all want it to be," Whitman continued. "There are times to make changes, and I've shown that we're not afraid to do that. There are times, like now, to get down and to get to work, and to build something we can all be proud of."
Whitman said he decided to call the press conference because he felt the issues at hand were serious enough to warrant addressing. There was no announcement, big or small, other than that there would be no announcement. Whitman cited a need to rebuild transparency and public trust as the reasons he and Groce addressed media. So, naturally, there was a lot of deflection and avoiding questions, all while maintaining that the behavioral standards of the program are and will continue to be adequately high.
The main thesis of Whitman and Groce's defense of the program is that "people make choices," and that those choices are out of the control of coaches and administrators leading those programs. Whitman compared the situation to a parental relationship, in which parents can try to instill values but aren't bad parents on the mere basis of their children's bad behavioral decisions. Which, it could be argued, is a fairly technical way of saying: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Both men said they were concerned about the allegations, but were unwavering in their devotion to the players' development as people, students, and athletes. Groce insisted, while continually reminding reporters he could not comment on allegations or apparently the individuals involved in any way, that he believed in Leron Black, Kendrick Nunn, and Jaylon Tate as men. Whitman insisted he believed in Groce as the leader of the program. End of story, more or less.
So what's to make of this fireside chat of a press conference?
Well, first and foremost, it's good that it happened. The main takeaway might be the lack of substance, but Whitman said this is the way he does things, and that's good. Most ADs, and in particular Illinois' previous one, would relish the opportunity to keep the lights dim during times of turmoil. Whitman appears to believe in the idea of maintaining a real relationship with the public, not just smiling for the camera when there are things to smile at cameras about. I think the level of questioning from reporters present wasn't as firm as it could have been, and I was confused why questions kept being directed at Groce, who was clearly the less likely to talk among the two present. He was also the one with more predictable answers.
Nonetheless, the lack of substance was a bit jarring, especially when our only impression of Whitman thus far is that of a bold decision-maker. When pressed for what specific changes would be made to improve behavior, all Groce could come up with, really, was having guest speakers address the team. Wild.
Whitman affirmed his commitment to Groce (which really happened when it was announced that they would be holding the conference together, unless you were anticipating some kind of public beheading, which, ease up, man, Game of Thrones isn't back until next month), and while that's not what a lot of fans were hoping for, it is consistent with his character. At this point, Whitman doesn't think it makes sense to fire Groce. After the catharsis of the act wears off, he isn't left with a plan out of such a hole.
Having said that, I don't see Whitman's commitment reaching beyond next season. He's making the words "We Will Win" into a mantra, and you can't square that with a coach who leaves the impression that, well, we won't win. A lot of folks are there already, but this season will be the first with Groce's guys as seniors. Groce has done an admirable job of scrapping together transfer players who contribute, but Hill, Morgan, Nunn, et al are his crop and his alone. If he doesn't win with them this season, I don't see him getting a chance to lead the class of 2017.
Whitman is showing a patience here that will grate at eager fans but could be beneficial even in the short run. He has a year to formulate a plan of succession and to find a candidate that can take the reins without missing much of a beat.
What's perhaps the most troubling takeaway is the lip service paid to the severity of the allegations and the likelihood of their truth irrespective of what the courts find. Domestic violence cases are notorious for falling apart in the hands of the courts despite veracity of the accusations. Meanwhile all we have after this press conference is a knowledge that "we are very concerned," coupled with the promise of semi-famous, semi-successful people coming to make appeals to the basketball team to be all they can be. And Whitman's defense of the idea that Groce's message isn't getting heard was particularly weak. He said that if you asked any player in the room at the time, they'd say the right thing, but that their actions hours and days and weeks later may show otherwise. Well, yes, that is actually what was meant by the players not hearing the message. And bringing in guest speakers actually furthers the idea that Groce is not getting through to players.
So from a morality standpoint, it was not a great image of Illinois taking a stand against that which is wrong. It was assurance without much proof that Groce is the right leader for the team. It was lip service without accompanying action to the fact that what these players are accused of is disturbing. It was transparency, for a small window with an unremarkable view.
But none of that refutes Whitman's claim that he's making the right decision and not an easy one. Perhaps rolling up the sleeves and working, instead of cutting bait to appease the masses, is the quickest path to wins. Perhaps Groce has a better shot to turn around the program this season than would any other coach Illinois could realistically bring in.
It just speaks to the state of the program, though, that making the right decision can leave such a bad taste.