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Passionate about Illini, new AD Josh Whitman seems right man for job


Passionate about Illini, new AD Josh Whitman seems right man for job

For a while there during Illinois’ months-long search for a new athletics director, it looked like no one wanted the job.

After all the turmoil surrounding the athletics department last year, the firing of head football coach Tim Beckman, the departure of athletics director Mike Thomas and the not-so-great standing of the two highest-profile programs, it looked as if getting someone to come to Champaign was a mighty hard sell.

But it was a dream job for one guy.

And now Josh Whitman — and the passion for the university he’s brought with him — seems like he was the perfect choice all along.

“I’ve lived this moment in my mind probably a million times. Ever since I was a freshman, sophomore in college, this is what I’ve wanted to do. And everything I’ve done since then, as an undergraduate and since I left the university, has been with an eye toward preparing myself for this moment,” Whitman said Thursday during his introductory press conference as Illinois’ new athletics director. “And there were times in law school where I wondered if it was worth it, I’m not gonna lie. But I had to believe that the plan would work and that the preparation would pay off. I never knew when or even if this opportunity would present itself, but I knew that when it did, if it did, I wanted to be ready. And I’m so happy and thrilled to be here, humbled to be here.

“This is a dream for me. This is an opportunity for me to take the last job that I hope I ever have. That’s the kind of power that this place has for me, it’s the kind of opportunity that this place presents. And I could not be more excited about what we’re about to do.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini make it official: Josh Whitman is new athletics director]

Whitman kept saying Thursday that he had returned “home.” And his ties to the school and the athletics department are deep. He played four years of football dressed in orange and blue, graduating in 2001. He returned after pursuing a professional career in the NFL to work in various capacities inside the Illinois athletics department while earning a law degree from the university. He left to become the athletics director at a pair of different Division-III schools: Wisconsin-La Crosse and Washington University in St. Louis. And now he’s back with a mission to restore pride, passion and success at his alma mater.

Pride and passion are things Whitman obviously has in spades. He brought his helmet from his playing days along with him, the now retro look with “Illinois” written in white across the orange helmet. One side was streaked with paint from what appeared to be several nasty on-field collisions, a fitting display of the hard work he’s already put in for this university and a fitting metaphor for the way he’s planning to take on the job’s many challenges.

“This is my helmet, and I’ve had in in every office that I’ve ever had, and I asked them to put it here,” he said, picking it up and showing off the aesthetic damage. “Some of that paint — I didn’t put that there with a brush. There’s a lot of work and a lot of pride that comes with this opportunity for me, and I don’t ever want anybody to lose sight of that. I understand the awesomeness of this responsibility. I am humbled by it.”

Among Whitman’s challenges are to put last year’s controversy in the past and make sure things like that — current and former student-athletes from multiple programs alleging player mistreatment — don’t ever happen again. But fans and observers will judge Whitman on whether he can turn around the fortunes of the football and men’s basketball programs. The football team is in turmoil having lost Beckman a week before the start of the 2015 season and having current head coach Bill Cubit working under just a two-year contract. Plus, the team has made just one bowl appearance in the last four seasons. The men’s basketball team under John Groce is heading for its third straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance.

[MORE BIG TEN: No overtimes this time as Illini roll past still-winless Rutgers]

Those realities have made for a negative climate, with fans embracing a doom-and-gloom mentality and the programs gaining attention for all the wrong reasons. Beckman’s behavior has a lot to do with that, but near-empty student sections at football games and the continual stream of top in-state football and basketball talent flowing anywhere but Champaign hasn’t helped.

Winning isn’t everything in college athletics, sure, but it is one of the main things on which athletics directors are judged. Whitman said it’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to be easy, but he did assure that victory is coming to Illinois.

“We will win. It’s important. That’s what everybody’s thirsty for. We don’t get in this to come in second place, that’s not our purpose. We understand that this is competitive, big-time college athletics,” Whitman said. “Our student-athletes are the best in the country. We will surround them with the resources that they need, with the mentors, the teachers, the coaches that they need to enjoy every bit of their possibility. We want them to expand their realm, we want them to become better than they ever imagined they could be. But we will win. It will take a lot of time. This is not an overnight fix, but it starts today.

“This is a long-term project, it’s a long-term commitment from me. And it is going to take some time to get to the place where we want it to be, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a long time to get started and for us to start seeing some of those improvements, some of that growth, some of that cultural change in terms of the positivity and the energy and the enthusiasm around our program. I think we need to set up plans and we need to start to deliver on these incremental changes that we hope people will be excited about and show some level of commitment that ultimately will resonate with them and start to generate this momentum that I’m talking about.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

While Whitman’s introductory press conference was a home run, there will remain doubts from those who have already voiced opinions that he is not experienced enough and that leading a pair of Division-III departments is nowhere close to running the show at a Big Ten institution. Whitman addressed that topic Thursday.

“For me, building a championship culture is not something that’s labeled with a Division-III or a Division-I,” he said. “You want to surround yourself with people who share a vision, who bring an energy to their daily work. … People want to say, ‘Oh, there’s a bigger budget and all these pressures and more media attention,’ and that’s all true. But at the end of the day, it’s about acting and performing to a standard of excellence, and we’ve been able to do that both at WashU and UW-La Crosse. And though you may have a few more people on the staff, you may have a few more zeroes on the balance sheet, that I think stays very consistent from one program to the next, and I’m excited to capitalize on those experiences here.”

Certainly whether Whitman can translate Division-III success to Illinois remains to be seen, and it won’t be able to be fully understood for years. But what was also certain Thursday was that Whitman is someone who has had his sights set on leading the Illinois athletics department since he was in his early 20s. He’s someone who has an extreme amount of passion and pride for this university, his alma mater. And he comes off as someone capable of doing this difficult job of turning things around in Champaign.

As positive reviews of Whitman’s hiring populated the Internet earlier this week, some crowned him the savior of Illinois athletics. Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson didn’t help expectations Thursday when she described him, albeit hyperbolically, as someone who could “walk on water.”  Whitman made it clear he’s not interested in being a savior. He said he wants to stay out of the way of the football coach and that he wants to work as one member of a talented team of people.

“I’m not the savior of Illinois athletics. I don’t walk on water. I’m one piece of a very big and very committed group of people,” he said. “If I can provide a spark, if I can provide some enthusiasm, if I can provide some vision and some leadership and some other things that our group here is so thirsty for, then great. And I think that’s what we need. But this isn’t about me.”

Whitman might not be able to walk on water. But providing a spark, some enthusiasm, some vision and some leadership could do wonders for Illinois, and that could be enough to earn savior status in Champaign.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.