There was never going to be a good time to fire Bill Cubit.
The past nine months at Illinois have been an ugly mess. The football team needed a fresh start. At 62 years old, Cubit, who admirably led the Illini to a 5-7 season after coach Tim Beckman was fired a week before their opening game for allegedly putting player safety at risk, wasn't going to be the man to hit the reset button. That much seemed inevitable for new athletic director Josh Whitman.
Fire Cubit this summer and you have wasted valuable spring practice time. Fire him during the regular coaching turnover cycle in December and you've spun your wheels for almost a full year (Not to mention running the risk of making it a much more difficult move to justify if Cubit's team did well in 2016). So Whitman decided to tear off the bandage as soon as possible -- a couple hours after officially taking over as head of the department.
"It's been an interesting first day, hasn't it?" Whitman said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
Cubit's tenuous two-year contract was a major obstacle in returning some stability to the program and the main factor working against the coach, according to Whitman. He wanted to waste no time in removing that obstacle. And while that move was accompanied by some understandable shock and skepticism, the true test of whether this is a turning point for the Illini or just another in a long series of missteps will be how Whitman handles the search for Cubit's replacement.
Whitman was barely seated at the table when he decided to push in all his chips on a move that will have the rest of the college football world watching Champaign closely in the coming weeks. With that kind of bravado, one would expect he's got a couple good cards up his sleeve.
"Certainly we've started to think about names [for a replacement]. You would be disappointed if I said I hadn't," he said. "...We have a plan."
The plan, apparently, did not include telling the team about a coaching change before releasing the news to the public. That's a courtesy that any athletic director in the country will tell you is an important first step of a taxing process. Players tweeted their disbelief Saturday afternoon that they were learning about their own team by refreshing Twitter pages.
Either Whitman didn't understand that, which seems unlikely since he himself played tight end for the Illini, or the process got away from him for a moment and leaks started to emerge before he could schedule a team meeting. In either scenario, it's not an encouraging start for a man who had only led Division III athletic departments prior to Saturday morning.
It was another flub for a program that has consistently tripped over itself at every opportunity in the past year.
Those recent failures aren't Whitman's fault, of course. And the rocky start definitely doesn't mean he can't recover and inspire some much-needed confidence with a swift hiring process in March. The university's human resources policy would likely prevent Whitman from announcing a new coach immediately if he's that far down the road already. But if there is a solid replacement waiting in the wings (former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has been the most talked about possibility thus far), he will look like a decisive leader who can make things happen.
He seemed well aware Saturday afternoon that the morning's events would be cast as another public relations punch in the nose for his bruised and battered alma mater. He's making a big bet, one that seems calculated, that it will be the last blow for a while. The next couple weeks will show if he's right or not.
When Whitman did get around to speaking to the football team later on Saturday, he told them to expect brighter days ahead.
"I told them this is the end," he said. "I have so much respect for them and everything they have worked through over the last six months to a year. It's been challenge after challenge. This is it. This is the last move, the last situation we expect to pose this kind of short-term challenge."
For the sake of his tenure as athletic director, it has to be.