Illinois stunned fans and observers on Saturday with the firing of Bill Cubit, who had been retained as head coach just months earlier. But the degrees of strangeness bear repeating, especially since this might've been the right idea. [Update: And now 2005 NFL coach of the year Lovie Smith is the reported favorite.]
1. Cubit was fired on new AD Josh Whitman's FIRST DAY.
Whitman, a former Illinois tight end, was hired on February 18 to replace fired athletic director Mike Thomas. (Thomas was fired in November, shortly after Illinois released the findings of an internal investigation into abuses by former Illinois football coach Tim Beckman.) He was then approved by the school's board of trustees on February 29 and took over for interim AD Paul Kowalczyk on Saturday, managing to get in a vote of confidence for men's basketball coach John Groce before firing Cubit.
So Whitman works fast, it would seem. But he also may have given Cubit no indication, considering Cubit's tweet on the day of the hire.
Great Meeting Josh Whitman today. We are excited about your leadership. Go ILLINI— Bill Cubit (@CoachCubit) February 18, 2016
2. Whitman didn't tell players first.
The downside of striking quickly? Leaving players twisting in the wind right before spring practice had been scheduled to start.
Love finding out about this through Twitter. https://t.co/vl1TD6qVVq— Mikey Dudek (@MDFlash_7) March 5, 2016
I'm refreshing my Twitter feed for updates on my own football team for crucial information this is crazy— Chayce Crouch (@teccrouch7) March 5, 2016
They Tell Twitter Before Even Telling The Team. Wow— KE'SHAWN VAUGHN (@SpeedKe5) March 5, 2016
Illinois announced Whitman would meet with players, but that coming after the announcement has rubbed plenty of folks the wrong way.
Hearing from several ADs that Whitman not informing players first was a poor choice. They're the ones getting hurt the most.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) March 5, 2016
3. Illinois has recruits coming to campus this weekend!
Rivals writer Josh Helmholdt made it seem as though Illinois was entertaining recruits as its head coach got the ax.
Helmholdt backtracked a bit.
I may be a day off on that - could be tomorrow that they are in, for the bball game. I’ll double check— Josh Helmholdt (@JoshHelmholdt) March 5, 2016
Muskegon (MI) 2017 LB Andrew Ward and 2018 OT Antwan Reed are supposed to be there tomorrow. Not sure on others https://t.co/wLoy5hk0lO— Josh Helmholdt (@JoshHelmholdt) March 5, 2016
But Scout writer Jeremy Werner tweeted that there are, in fact, recruits on campus.
#illini had a few recruits on campus today too. Awkward.— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) March 5, 2016
Regardless of exactly who will be in town when, it's probably not a good thing for Illinois to be showing high schoolers around — especially given that ...
4. Illinois fired its coach in hopes of creating stability.
Whitman's statement ends with this:
At this juncture, however, I think it is most important that we position our program for long-term success by creating a more stable environment for the coaches, players, and prospective student-athletes."
What Cubit was able to pitch to recruits was a sense of stability. Cubit was Beckman's offensive coordinator and got through the 2015 season without significant incident. And though Cubit was implicated by former Illinois lineman Simon Cvejanovic in the abuse that cost Beckman his job, he wasn't implicated by the final report.
Cubit even liked to brag about having more staying power than coaches who used his tenuous position against him on the recruiting trail.
Not so fast, my friend! pic.twitter.com/8rjkqQyH7f— U-God (@SBN_UGod) March 5, 2016
5. Whitman is apparently keeping John Groce.
In his first year as Illinois AD, Thomas hired Beckman, Groce, and women's basketball coach Matt Bollant. Thomas and Beckman are gone, and Bollant is also under fire by former players; Groce has merely been under fire for old-fashioned reasons. Illinois has had fewer wins in each of Groce's four years and will finish under .500 this season, barring a miraculous run through the Big Ten Tournament.
Injuries have a lot to do with Groce's team underperforming, sure. Still, it's odd to see Whitman commit to keeping a coach whose team has struggled when ...
6. This costs Illinois some significant coin.
Bill Cubit will be paid about $985,000 buyout— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) March 5, 2016
Ryan Cubit will be paid $361,000 buyout
For a lot of schools, $1.3 million isn't that much; it's about a third of a year's salary for an SEC West coach. But Illinois, despite revenues of about $80 million in 2014-15, is near the bottom of the Big Ten in spending, with only Purdue and Maryland in its rear view.
Installing and firing Cubit seems to have cost the Illini at least that much, with the results delivered by Cubit between his extension as head coach and his firing limited to a loss to Northwestern and a recruiting class that the 247Sports Composite ranked No. 71 in the country.
7. The coaching carousel had stopped.
If the Illini had let Cubit go in November, they would likely have saved themselves at least some share of that $1.3 million and been able to look for a coach when coaches were looking for jobs. That coach may not have been a big name, but some lower-profile schools nabbed what seem like coaches on the rise: Iowa State landed Toledo head coach Matt Campbell, Rutgers plucked defensive coordinator Chris Ash from Ohio State, and Syracuse snagged Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers.
That stratum of coach wouldn't have been an unrealistic target for Illinois, especially given that Beckman was fired way back in August, theoretically allowing Thomas more lead time than any other AD to find a new head man ... but, well, Thomas had to go, too.
Now? Whitman's got to pull a rabbit out of a hat with a top coach from a lower level or a bolting by either an FBS coach or NFL assistant, or else he's fired Cubit without a successor in place. On the list of possible targets The Champaign Room has compiled, Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini would fit the bill of the former, and Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck would qualify as the latter.
A poorly perceived hire would signal to many that Whitman's brand of mismanagement is just different from the one Thomas practiced.
8. And yet: This might be the right move.
That hope that Whitman has a killer hand to lay down is more than most Illinois fans have been able to hold dear in years. And keeping Cubit — especially on a two-year deal that made him a short-term lease — wasn't ever really a good move.
Brian Hamilton argued Saturday that Whitman's wielding of the ax is a very positive sign:
Maybe Whitman wasn’t going to spend the next two years actively pursuing a new coach. But he was bound to do some window-shopping, if he is as smart and savvy as Illinois hopes he is, anyway. That’s wasting time. That’s wheel-spinning for the sake of it, and no worthwhile boss functions that way.
What, realistically, was Bill Cubit going to accomplish with the Illini’s talent to convince his new boss that he should stay? Snare that much-coveted Quick Lane Bowl bid and declare it a sign of progress? No, the odds were far too high that Cubit’s regime was doomed practically before it began, and Whitman was smart to stake another horse.
Whoever takes this job, though, will be better positioned for long-range success than Bill Cubit would have been. That’s the painful, honest truth. It didn’t take Josh Whitman a day to recognize it.
Whitman hiring his own guy undermines any spin that Cubit's firing is about stability, but that statement was less about maintaining stability than creating it. And Cubit couldn't do that, not on a two-year deal as a phantom limb of the Beckman regime, nor could he have sold some imagined upward trajectory.
If Illinois wants to compete at the highest levels again, as it did when it made BCS bowls in 2002 and 2008, it likely needed a change that qualified as brash and smart. By firing Cubit, Whitman's satisfied any definition of the first, at least.
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