One official day on the job, and one head football coach fired. New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman isn’t messing around.
Whitman floored Bill Cubit by firing him Saturday morning, a mere three months after the school had pulled the “interim” out of the 62-year-old coach’s title and given him a new, two-year contract. Also given the heave-ho was Ryan Cubit, Bill’s son and, ever so suddenly, former offensive coordinator.
“I was totally shocked,” Cubit said via text message.
Reports surfaced later in the day saying Lovie Smith would take over the program. Can you imagine that? There’s a football coach named Lovie. Who knew?
Seriously, the former longtime Bears coach taking his act to Illinois — he hasn’t coached at the college level in over two decades — would be a fascinating development.
Smith is highly respected and widely admired, qualities Illinois’ controversy-ridden athletic department can’t have too much of. He is a proven leader and tactician. But does he really want to take on all the necessary burdens of recruiting? Would he really be tolerant of fat-cat boosters and the flat-out requirement of a major-college coach to press the flesh with alumni like a Presidential candidate on the campaign trail?
That’s all stuff Cubit was thrilled to get to do. He is a good man with a big heart who helped the Illini program begin to move on from the twin train wrecks that were former coach Tim Beckman and ex-AD Mike Thomas’ tenures. No slouch as a coach, Cubit was well-liked by players and determined to show in 2016 that, together, they could be greater than the sum of their parts.
But just like that, he’s out of a job. His former staff members will be allowed by the school to interview with the next coach, which is a nice way of telling them, “Get your résumés ready.”
“I see this as the first step toward what we ultimately want to build,” Whitman said.
Whitman isn’t messing around, but does he know what he’s doing? Only 37 years old and fresh off an AD post at a Division III school, he certainly lacks experience swimming with the sharks of big-time college sports. That is, if one can call Illinois the big-time.
Cubit’s buyout — a tick under $1 million — is no big deal. The potential damages to the program’s current and future rosters are relatively minimal, given the Illini would’ve been operating, under even the best of circumstances, with average-at-best talent.
In nearly all respects, Whitman’s desire to forge ahead with a new coach — with the right coach, be that Smith or someone else — is reasonable and understandable.
But you’d better believe this: If Whitman doesn’t already have Cubit’s replacement essentially signed, sealed and delivered, this will blow up in his face. You just don’t fire a football coach in March unless you’ve done all the hard work already. Every other opening in the country was filled long ago.
Whitman’s eventful first day included a truly unimpressive gaffe on his part: not informing Cubit’s players before many of them learned of the news the new-fashioned way — on Twitter.
Hopefully a gaffe, anyway. If it wasn’t a gaffe, then it was a surprisingly insensitive move.
What a whirlwind it has been for them.
Some rose to Whitman’s defense, arguing that, in 2016, it’s next to impossible to control the flow of such information. Perhaps he could’ve tried harder, out of respect to all involved — not only Cubit and his players, who’d already been through a lot, but also the new assistant coaches who uprooted their families and moved to the Champaign-Urbana area over the last three months, only to be out of work before their first game.
It was an eventful day. A bit of a nutty one, but this is Illinois we’re talking about, right?
Whitman seems to have made up his mind to keep struggling basketball coach John Groce around — for now — but who knows when, and how abruptly, that could change? If we learned anything about Whitman on the guy’s first official day, it’s that he isn’t afraid to get a little nuts.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.