This week Matt Bollant finally gets to turn the page. A report released Monday from Pugh, Jones and Johnson confirmed what those close to the program knew all along — that allegations of racial discrimination were completely unfounded.
Wednesday Bollant had his chance to answer questions he hasn’t been able to answer until the close of the investigation late last week.
Bollant said that even before allegations surfaced and he and Mike Divilbiss, a seven-year assistant, decided to part ways, the head coach had decided to make some changes within the program.
“I want the program to be more of a reflection of me,” Bollant said. “I’m upbeat and positive, energetic and optimistic. I want the program to look more like that.”
Even before Divilbiss left, Bollant led spring workouts himself and had made the decision to be the only voice in the huddle during timeouts, something he shared with Divilbiss for three years at Illinois.
After winning 19 games the first year in 2012-13, it was obvious after the graduation of Adrienne GodBold and Karisma Penn that the program was left in worse shape than the staff thought. But while Bollant was positive, Divilbiss struggled with losing and was far more negative.
“I think the first year went really well,” Bollant said. “The first year is about the players. We didn’t put in a whole system. We made the system work for those players. Adrienne and Karisma were really talented and when they graduated, although the other kids bought in, we just weren’t as talented as other teams in the Big Ten.”
While Divilbiss certainly was more negative than the rest of the staff, that in itself was not enough to prompt the kind of allegations that were levied against his program. In fact, Bollant said he didn’t get a hint that there was any issue until late in the season.
“We didn’t hear a negative word until I got a phone call from Tom Grusecki (Jacqui Grant’s stepfather) in February. Then there wasn’t anything until the letters were written (in April),” Bollant said.
You have to give a lot of credit to the Illinois administration for how they have handled this case. Athletic director Mike Thomas deferred it to campus, not wanting to show any bias in the case. Chancellor Wise turned appropriately to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access and Academic Human Resources, who found there was “no violation of applicable law or University policy.” If there had been even a sniff of wrongdoing, the administration would have taken swift action.
Despite presenting no corroborating evidence, the group of parents, led by Grusecki, swiftly protested the investigation and eventually pushed forward with a $10 million lawsuit. That threat prompted the university to hire Pugh, Jones, and Johnson to perform a more thorough investigation.
To the university’s credit, while they haven’t given a clear thumbs-up to Coach Bollant, they have rightly waited until the facts have been presented to pass judgment.
“I feel like Mike (Thomas) has been great,” Bollant said. “He’s been good with me and communicated well. We’ve talked thoroughly through this. It started in February and have had really open communication.”
On the decision to have Divilbiss move on from the program, Bollant said, “In the end, it was a mutual agreement. He and I have been friends and will continue to be friends and I wish him the very best.”
Perhaps, the integrity with African-American players was best reflected in all the staff did help GodBold toward graduation Bollant said repeatedly that whether or not GodBold could be an asset on the court, he and the staff would support her in every way and help her get her academics in order.
There aren’t many finer upstanding people than the current Illinois head coach. He truly cares about his players and wants them to succeed. He has core values and wears them on his sleeve. The kind of behavior alleged is simply not in his character and in sifting through 18,000 documents, 33 interviews and every second of game and practice footage, the independent investigators asserted there was no basis for those allegations.
With the hiring of Jody Martinez, who brings with him 400 victories as a head coach, as an assistant coach last week and with the investigation in the rearview mirror, Bollant can finally firmly look ahead to the 2015-16 season and beyond. That begins with an 11-day trip for his team to France.
“Our job is to move forward,” Bollant said. “We are working really hard. Thankfully the recruiting has gone well and will continue to go well.”
Bollant offered several other nuggets on the program:
• The morning prior to word of the allegations, Bollant announced the promotion of LaKale Malone to associate head coach. A well-respected assistant in both the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, Malone has all the tools to be a head coach at a major program someday. Bollant indicated she’ll have more on-court responsibilities than before, and in addition to working with the guards, she’ll do more individual work while Bollant is on the road recruiting.
“Our players really like her,” Bollant said of Malone. “She has done a good job on the court and is a high character, high integrity person. She has a great resume and has done a great job where she has been. We are fortunate to have her.”
• On the hiring of Martinez, Bollant said, “I have known Jody for 13 years and have always appreciated how hard his teams played and their level of attention to detail. He is highly respected in our profession.”
• Bollant had the chance to travel to Russia to watch sophomore Chatrice White help the United States to the gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships (scoring 10 points in the championship game) and incoming freshman Jaelyne Kirkpatrick compete in the same games for Canada. Bollant also was able to do some recruiting overseas, something he believes will continue to pay dividends.
A trip to Prague last year helped land Kirkpatrick and opened Bollant up to the possibility of adding more international talent in future years. Kirkpatrick had 94 offers, including Vanderbilt, Utah and Iowa State, before ultimately choosing Illinois.
“It’s an education process, but I’m kind of excited about it,” Bollant said of the overseas recruiting. “The experience with Jaelyne started the process, then I started seeing some other kids there that I liked.”
Bollant said especially in recruiting international players, the program benefits from Illinois’ strong academic reputation.
“The first thing a recruit asks is where we are academically,” Bollant said. “The first thing we send them is all about the academics. A lot of them also don’t like the big cities. They like the fact that we are in a little bit smaller area.”
• The upcoming foreign trip has given the Illini 10 more practices up from the usual two hours a week the staff is allowed to work with players during this period.
“This will be a great experience for our players,” Bollant said. “A lot of our players have never been out of the country and so for them to be able to go to France and see the Eiffel Tower and experience their culture will be great for them. As far as basketball, we’ve been able to practice and start building our offense. We put in the Buzz the other day, so it will be good for our players to be able to run it in game situations.”
Bollant said he expects newcomers Alex Wittinger, Kirkpatrick and Cierra Rice to see a lot of court time to gain experience and help the staff in evaluating them.
• The extra practice time has also given the staff a glimpse of what the team might look like in 2015-16. The team will once again be built around White, a McDonald’s All-American who set Illini freshman records for points (448) and blocked shots (60).
The other returning starter is senior point guard Kyley Simmons, who Bollant said made 46 of 50 three-pointers during a recent practice.
Bollant also said that if the season started today, Wittinger, a 6-1 forward who ranked as the No. 16 wing player in the country by ESPN Hoopgurlz, and Rice, a 5-9 guard who was ranked the No. 1 prospect from the state of Michigan, would be in the starting line-up.
“We have a lot of players that didn’t play significant roles last year that will need to,” Bollant added. “That starts with Sarah Hartwell, who I think is going to have a great year. She has had an amazing summer that I believe will springboard her into her senior year. She’s shooting the ball really well, making 500 shots a day on her own in the gym and is just really driven.”
Hartwell has been with the program for three years, sitting out 2012-13 after transferring from Georgia Tech. The following year, Hartwell started 20 games, averaging 6.3 points per game, but saw limited action last year.
The difference for Hartwell according to Bollant? “She is playing with a lot of confidence this summer. Physically, she can really go. She has all the tools to be a really good basketball player; she just needed a boost of confidence.”
Bollant added that while“nothing has been determined” with regards to the line-up, ultimately, he expects all 11 players to vie for playing time during pre-season. Sophomore Kennedy Cattenhead has been in the mix until suffering a knee injury while Loyola transfer Simone Law has also had health issues. Junior Ashley McConnell, who started the last eight games of the 2014 season, and sophomore Brooke Kissinger, who saw action in 21 games in 2015, have all had positive summers as well.
“It’s a work in progress trying to build the mindset of our players and help them grow,” Bollant said.” I think we’ve done a great job in the classroom, going from a 2.2 GPA to a 3.2. Our kids are going to class taking it seriously and want to do well. I think our practice integrity and their attention to detail in practice is better as well. The biggest thing for us is looking to add talent in order to make a jump in the Big Ten. This last year we were closer and we have a good freshman class. Hopefully we can continue to add the right pieces to help us compete at a high level.”