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Illini fans deserve better basketball – and they’ll get it

GroceWhitman
University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman (left) will make his decision on the fate of fifth-year basketball coach John Groce at season’s end.

From the Saturday, Feb. 18, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

A Twitter friend of mine calls it BFS.

Battered Fan Syndrome.

And Illini Nation is suffering from it. Badly.

After watching Illinois football tumble from Rose Bowl heights to Tim Beckman and seeing the basketball program slide from national runner-up to perennial NIT candidate, Illini fans collectively have been so beaten down over the past dozen years that many have convinced themselves that they don’t even deserve actual coaching competency and sports success.

With Illini hoops coach John Groce slogging his way through yet another lost season, it’s gotten to the point on social media where almost daily I find myself giving pep talks to fans who are far more blue than orange. Despite the fact that Josh Whitman boldly fired football coach Bill Cubit – on his first day as Illinois athletic director, mind you – and stunned the nation by replacing him with Lovie Smith, many fans still don’t believe that Whitman will even fire Groce, let alone replace him with a top-level coach.

I find all of that to be absolute nonsense.

Because, throughout its history, Illinois never has had difficulty hiring a good basketball coach. But former athletic director Mike Thomas sure did.

I’ll just leave that at that.

This defeatist mindset has become so ingrained among many Illini fans that this week a student columnist for the Daily Illini campus newspaper wrote, “You can complain, boo and tweet all you want. Yell until your lungs get sore and type as fast you can to get #FireGroce trending. But it isn’t going to do anything because John Groce isn’t going anywhere.”

The writer believes that Groce won’t be dismissed because Whitman likes the coach too much, pointing to evidence that 1) Whitman attends almost every basketball game home and away (he does that for football too because, well, it’s his job), 2) a video last fall showed the AD embracing Groce after top recruit Jeremiah Tilmon committed (the hug happened in public at a university golf outing, not during a stealth lunch that was surreptitiously recorded), and 3) because he spotted Groce and Whitman sitting in the same State Farm Center box during a Dierks Bentley concert last October.

I’m told that a number of Illini coaches from many sports were in and out of the AD’s suite during the show, and a friend of mine who also popped in joked to me that he’s surprised he’s now not rumored for the Illini basketball job.

All chuckles aside, it’s not just students who sadly have never seen good Illini basketball that carry skepticism about whether Whitman will actually fire a coach with a 32-52 Big Ten record who’s poised to miss four straight NCAA Tournaments. Last Saturday after Illinois was thumped at home by Penn State to fall to 14-12 overall, 4-9 in conference, longtime Champaign News-Gazette scribe Loren Tate wrote, “Can this squad … overcome its shortcomings in the last five games (plus the Big Ten tourney) sufficiently to remove the burgeoning pressure on fifth-year coach John Groce?”

I believe that answer is clear: No. And I believe that Josh Whitman knows that too. As an Illinois alum, he understands what Illini basketball actually is supposed to be. And while the AD very well may like Groce as a person, I have no doubt that the AD will do what needs to be done for the university.

I’m confident that he’ll get Illinois a basketball coach that Illini fans actually deserve whether they believe they do or not and show that BFS is just BS.