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After Adding Lovie Smith, Is Illinois' Troubled Athletic Program In Turnaround?

Following a dreary year of losses and controversies, Illinois has a new athletic director and a new football coach in Lovie Smith, and a mandate to turn things around.

by Sean Neumann
Jun 15 2016, 3:10pm

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Four months ago, University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman was just another disgruntled fan—unhappy, like many others, with the direction of the school's athletic program.

That is, to the extent it can be said to have any direction at all. Since August of last year, Illinois has fired two head football coaches and its former athletic director; investigated its football program for player abuse and mishandling injuries; seen four starters on the men's basketball team arrested, two of them for domestic battery over a five-day span; and had its women's basketball program sued for $10 million by seven former players who claimed that their coach created a "racially hostile environment" and segregated players based on skin color.

"I was frustrated, like a lot of people probably have been," said Whitman, who played tight end for the Illini football team from 1997 to 2000. "I felt like some of the things that were happening were not representative of the athletic program and the institution that I know."

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Unlike most fans, Whitman has a chance to do something about his angst. In mid-February, the 37-year-old was hired as the school's athletic director, and he has wasted little time in attempting to steer both his troubled department and Illinois' tarnished sports brand away from a minefield of losses, controversies, and confusing leadership.

Whitman orchestrated his biggest move—or biggest bet, depending on how you look at it—before his first official day on the job, quietly arranging to fire newly-hired football coach Bill Cubit in order to bring on former Chicago Bears and longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith. "It was certainly the first moment (of the university's administration being on the same page) since I arrived," Whitman said. "It was a great example of how a leadership team can and should work together to benefit the university."

Smith's fresh—and most importantly, familiar—face has so far been a public relations victory, instantly boosting Illinois' credibility while giving fans and alumni a reason to begin forgetting a tumultuous and embarrassing 2015-16. Yet as Whitman and Smith work to change the culture inside Illinois athletics and the perception around it, some questions still need to be answered. Illini backers may be able to forget the last year. But given all that transpired, will they also be able to forgive?

Illinois athletics had a no good, very bad year. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The bad news began in earnest one week before the Illini football team kicked off its 2015 season, when then-athletic director Mike Thomas fired then-football coach Tim Beckman. The surprising move came in response to a university investigation into allegations that Beckman had forced players to play through injuries and inappropriately influenced team doctors to get players back on the field.

That investigation was prompted by a fiery Twitter rant from senior offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who claimed he would have to go to physical therapy for the rest of his life after Beckman demanded that he play for months despite a meniscus tear in his knee. Cvijanovic also said he was ignored when he took his complaints to the athletic program. When other players began to speak up, Cvijanovic's allegations became a national news story, covered by CNN, HBO, and the New York Times in relation to player mistreatment in college sports. "I'm not gonna just keep quiet while players suffer," said Cvijanovic, adding, "There is no one to speak on the behalf of the student athlete."

Illinois hired an external law firm to investigate, and findings were released last November. The firm found that Beckman was inappropriately interfering with injury procedures and pressuring team doctors to get players back on the field despite health risks. In what many observers saw as an attempt to cleanse the school's athletic department, Thomas was fired and replaced by interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk. With Beckman and Thomas gone, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit assumed the role of interim head coach, and the school signed him to a head-turning, two-year contract in late November. Kowalczyk promptly said that Cubit's contract was "not ideal" for the program, adding to the bad vibes around Memorial Stadium.

That wasn't the only crisis facing Illinois' athletic department. One member of the women's soccer team and another from the women's basketball team claimed more medical mistreatment—in soccer player Casey Conine's case, she filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the university that's still pending.

In addition, seven women's basketball players alleged last spring that coach Matt Bollant and assistant Mike Divilbiss had racially discriminated against players and were emotionally abusive, forcing four players to transfer schools.

The university launched two investigations into the program—one internal, one external—last summer, while the players filed a $10 million lawsuit against the school. Both investigations found Illini coaches' player treatment was harsh but not discriminatory. The seven players and the university reached a $375,000 settlement this past April, the same day it reached a wrongful termination settlement with Beckman for $250,000.

A law firm hired by Illinois to investigate allegations against Tim Beckman found that he inappropriately interfered with injury procedures and pressured team doctors to get players back on the field despite health risks. Photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The men's basketball program has been troubled, too. Junior forward Darius Paul was dismissed from the team last August following an arrest for vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest after breaking car windows during a team trip to France. Paul never played a game for Illinois, having been suspended the entire previous season following an arrest for underage drinking and resisting officers.

Paul's dismissed came after news news that star guard Tracy Abrams would miss his second-straight season with a torn Achilles tendon, which meant Illinois was again without its team captain for the coming year. The Illini dealt with a laundry list of injuries during the season, needing nine different starting lineups in its first ten games. But that bad luck was nothing compared to the program's ongoing off-court problems.

In February, starting forward Leron Black was arrested after pulling a knife on a bouncer following an argument outside a local music venue. One month later, starting guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn were both arrested in a five-day span for individual domestic battery charges. "This thing is going out of control," former Illini guard Jelani Boline told the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette following Nunn's arrest.

Previously the athletic director at Washington University in St. Louis, a Division III school, Whitman had been brought in both to revitalize Illini athletics, and to restore some lost integrity to the program. One week prior to Tate and Nunn's arrests, he had given men's basketball coach John Groce a vote of confidence. Now, a Chicago Tribune column was calling for the coach to be let go.

Instead, Whitman promoted popular former Illini guard Dee Brown from special assistant to the athletic director to the basketball program's director of player development. Brown, who led Illinois to the national championship game in 2005, had spent much of the previous season rallying the dwindling crowd at home games and representing Illini basketball. In his new role, Whitman said, Brown will work as a "big brother," helping current players make good choices on, and especially off, the court. "If anybody understands what it's like to live life in the spotlight of being an Illinois basketball player, it's Dee Brown," Whitman said. "We wanted someone who could speak from real-life experience about how to make good decisions and how to take care of their business."

On the same day Brown was hired, Nunn pled guilty to charges of hitting a woman—a plea that led to his dismissal from the Illinois basketball program a week later. Whitman told VICE Sports the school considered keeping Nunn on the team, despite his guilty plea. Nunn was the team's second-leading scorer last season, and as Whitman said, the program had a duty to educate its "kids." "We certainly talked at length about if there were other options," Whitman said. "Our primary concern was Kendrick as a person. We wanted to be sure that we were being thoughtful about what the implications of this decision were for him."

Tate's charges were dropped after the state's attorney decided it didn't have enough evidence to back up the alleged victim's claims. Black pled guilty to a misdemeanor aggravated assault, and Groce has given him a six-game suspension to start the upcoming season.

Although Illinois men's basketball went 15-19 amid last season's turmoil, Whitman still backs his coach. "I don't think anything has gone wrong from a systemic or programmatic standpoint," he said. "We've had some individual student-athletes who have made very poor decisions, but I don't think it reflects an error on the part of our coaching staff."

The program also faces fading student support and a lack of fan optimism. Both are understandable, given that Illinois has missed four of the last five NCAA Tournaments and has only made it past the round of 64 three times since Brown led the school to the Final Four 11 years ago.

"It was disappointing to see them fall on their face again," said Chris Bourg, a longtime Illini fan and recent graduate. "This is a make or break year."

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman has expressed support for basketball coach John Groce. Photo by Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Like Groce, Smith is dealing with off-the-field issues: Champaign-Urbana's News-Gazette recently reported that defensive lineman Jarrod "Chunky" Clements was charged with battery back in April but never served an arrest warrant.

Still, Smith's hiring so far has been met with enthusiasm in Champaign. Illinois fans haven't had much to be excited about in recent years, as the football team has gone 39-60—and a demoralizing 17-47 in Big Ten play—since losing the 2008 Rose Bowl. The Illini haven't won a conference championship since 2001. Student section attendance has been lacking.

Within days of Love's hiring announcement, however, T-shirts were being sold across campus that read, "All You Need is Lovie" and "Lovie/Whitman '16." Over two days, the school sold more than 2,000 season tickets. "For the first time in my lifetime, the administration and the athletic department have shown a tangible commitment to football, something that this school has lacked for a long time," said Bourg, who plans to travel back to Champaign-Urbana to catch multiple games this season. "(Smith) is still going to have to prove himself. As long as you get results, it's all kosher."

Whitman realizes as much. To reassure disgruntled fans and rebuild his athletic department's reputation, the Illini will have to avoid trouble off the field–and win on it. "I can't begrudge people for being negative in the past," he said. "But I can absolutely encourage and expect them to be positive about the future."

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