When Illinois fired football coach Bill Cubit, it signaled a bold, confident move by new athletic director Josh Whitman.
On his first official day as Illinois athletic director, Josh Whitman fired the current football coach.
So what took so long?
When the news of Bill Cubit’s dismissal landed on Saturday morning, it no doubt seemed to most like another bucket of crazy poured over a hysterically dysfunctional school. Just 97 days passed between the moment Illinois awarded Cubit the full-time gig after one year as interim coach and the moment it decided to axe him after all. It takes a special kind of lunacy to arrange that, even in this state, where gobsmacking ineptitude is the primary qualification for holding an office of any sort.
But let’s be clear: This is one of the most lucid, coherent things anyone associated with Illinois athletics has done in quite some time.
As nice a guy as Cubit is, as well as he represented Illinois after Tim Beckman was fired before 2015 began and then through the ensuing player mistreatment scandal, he never should have been more than a sideline stop-gap. No matter how far and how fast viable coaching candidates ran from the mess in Champaign, the school needed to convince someone to take the job last winter and steady a listing ship. Instead, on Nov. 29, after a 5-7 season, the university armed Cubit with a two-year contract. This neatly defined how poorly equipped anyone was to offer any definitive direction at all.
Kicking a decision down the road a couple of years only guarantees a couple of years of consternation. Strong, confident leaders make hard decisions that provide a clear path. They don’t take ham-fisted half-measures which, in reality, are problems disguised as solutions.
We don’t know how strong a leader Josh Whitman is just yet.
We’re pretty clear on the level of his confidence as of Saturday, though.
“I appreciate the leadership that Bill Cubit provided our football program during what has been, unquestionably, a very tumultuous time,” Whitman said in a statement announcing the change. “He accepted the challenge on an interim basis under incredibly difficult and unusual circumstances, and he has continued to work diligently for the betterment of our student-athletes...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.”
Whitman, the 37-year-old former Illinois tight end who has barely warmed his seat after arriving from Washington University, wisely followed a mantra famously espoused by Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley, when he fired football coach Ron Zook after a 7-4 season in 2004: What should be done eventually must be done immediately. (The coincidence that Zook subsequently landed at Illinois is too mind-bending to process appropriately at this time.) 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.
Who that horse is…well, there’s the family-sized serving of insanity in all this: Josh Whitman now has to find a viable major-conference football coach in March.
On the one hand, no other schools are looking for coaches to fill their vacancies. On the other hand, no other schools are so unhinged and chaotic that they’re looking for a major-conference football coach in March. But, hey, if you want to make an omelet, sometimes you have to put all reasonable and logical parameters for coach-hiring protocol into a fry pan and flambé the hell out of them. Or something like that. (Then again, Whitman got the job in mid-February; he should have had enough time to find his man before his first official day of work. Or at least he better have.)
Whoever takes this job (sources confirmed to SI’s Thayer Evans that Lovie Smith is the expected hire), 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.
This should have happened last fall. It was going to happen eventually. So it might as well happen now, crazy as that sounds.