Matt Bollant: same coach aims for new leadership for Illini women's basketball

By Jon Joffe

In the midst of player mistreatment allegations surrounding his team — resulting in the departure of Bollant’s top assistant, Mike Divilbiss — Bollant finds himself with a retooled roster and the need for change.

The change, for Bollant, starts at the top. In the past, the Illini coach has allowed his assistants — especially Divilbiss — to have the largest voice from time to time. There was no clear leader on the sidelines. That will no longer be the case, according to the head coach.

“Moving forward, it’s going to be my voice, which if anybody knows me, I’m really positive, upbeat and optimistic,” Bollant said to reporters during Illinois basketball media day. “That’s how our players are going to play, and they’re going to have great belief in themselves and one another, and a great belief in our staff.”

In the spring, Bollant led all of the workouts with players and claims that they were “off-the-charts good.” The coach pointed to the progression of star center Chatrice White, who went from initially not having a workout with USA Basketball Women’s U19 World Championship team, to making the team and having a significant impact on the court.

“We’re definitely hearing coach Bollant more vocal in practice,” White said. “It’s definitely more his, as well as our program this year, and we’re really excited about that.”

In addition to the spring workouts, Bollant met with the players he hopes will lead his team. In the meeting, the coach laid out the foundation of leadership that he expects from here on out.

The coach told his players that great teams hold each other accountable when they make mistakes. But Bollant foresees the Illini’s on-the-court performance this season will also be a direct reflection of his personality. For those that are unfamiliar with the coach’s demeanor, he provides a moment of self-description.

“Anybody that knows me knows that I am extremely optimistic,” Bollant said. “I get up every day excited to go to work, excited about life.”

That is exactly the mindset that the fourth-year coach wants his players to have. He wants them to have fun and live in the moment and establish mutual trust.

It all starts at the top, with their coach.

Bollant already sees that trust developing in his players, and says that it has affected on-court performances during the spring.

“I was talking to (redshirt senior) Kyley (Simmons), and she was shooting the ball so well, and she said ‘Why do you think? Because we know that you believe in us. We know that you think we can be great,’ and that is starting to transfer to all of the players,” Bollant said.

Bollant is the Illini’s dominant voice, and for that reason, it’s his vision that his team will be looser, without tension.

Again, Bollant shared a bit about himself.

“I think when I’m angry, I’m slow to speak, which is a really good quality, because sometimes when you’re angry, you don’t say the right things,” he said. “In four years here, I don’t think you’d ask any player ‘Did coach Bollant ever say something that was out of line, over the top?’ They’d say no.”

Simmons elaborated on this topic, and explained that the players react to Bollant as they would to a stern father figure. While Bollant holds his team accountable, he does not yell when mistakes are made; the coach just gives his players “that look.”

“Every coach is different, and coach Bollant is a very positive coach,” Simmons said. “He lets you figure out the wrong before he says it.

For Simmons, that means everything for a player. She is a big fan of the freedom that Bollant gives her and the rest her team, and loves how she can get mad at herself and correct mistakes before her coach interjects.

And there’s no doubting Bollant’s spirits are high.

He feels that he has one of the best post players in the country is Chatrice White, along with three freshman — Alex Wittinger, Cierra Rice, and Jaelyne Kirkpatrick – who had strong showings during the team’s summer trip to France.

“You know, I have a great job. I’m the head coach at Illinois,” Bollant said. “I get to coach kids that are passionate about the game of basketball, kids that do it the right way. Our cultures and our practice ethics are strong as they’ve ever been, and so it’s an exciting time to be an Illini.”

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[email protected]_Joffe