CHAMPAIGN — Longtime Illinois assistant Jamall Walker has always wanted to be a head coach but he didn’t see it playing out this way.
“Been waiting to do this for a long time as far as having the opportunity,” Walker said. “Unfortunately it had to come this way.”
No doubt it’s been a hectic 48 hours for the Illini and especially Walker, who will serve as Illinois’ interim head coach for the NIT, starting with Tuesday night’s game against Valparaiso. Josh Whitman wasted no time offering him the interim tag soon after firing Groce.
“Got a call that afternoon to come over,” Walker said. “Josh sat us down and talked and let him know that there was a change to be made, asked me to be the interim coach, which I accepted. Just to have an opportunity to coach our guys and be around our guys was the main factor for me.”
Walker and Groce have been friends and colleagues for years, making the decision to take over for his former boss even tougher. He called it a ‘tough decision.’
“John gave me a tremendous opportunity nine years prior when I was at Murray State,” Walker said. “Out of all the staff, I’ve known John since 2001 so I’ve known him the longest. I consider him a friend first and a mentor and it was very, very difficult but at the same time it’s not about how I feel.”
Walker was adamant that this isn’t about him or his head coaching dreams.
“As far as my team, it’s not really my team,” he said. “I’ll be honest, it’s not really. It wasn’t John Groce’s team. It’s Tracy Abrams team, it’s Malcolm Hill’s team, it’s Maverick Morgan’s team. They’re going to determine what they want to show, I’ve told them that. What do you want to show? We’ve been talking about legacy around here. You still have an opportunity to show what I’m about.”
“He’s been really positive with us, encouraging guys, telling us it’s another opportunity for us to play,” Abrams said. “So he’s doing a great job of keeping us motivated.”