Illinois made it official Wednesday, announcing Josh Whitman as the school's new athletics director.
It was widely reported Tuesday night that Whitman would be named the successor to Mike Thomas, who departed his post as athletics director back in November. The months-long search, which was at times described as dysfunctional, has now come to an end.
Whitman will be introduced Thursday and is expected to start on March 21.
Whitman is an Illinois alumnus and a former member of the Illini football team, starting as a tight end for four seasons. He also worked in various capacities inside the athletics department at Illinois during his time in law school, which followed a four-year professional career in the NFL. He has both a bachelor's degree and a law degree from Illinois.
“It is a dream come true for me to return to my alma mater as the next director of athletics,” Whitman said in the university's announcement. “With strong leadership, a bold vision, daring integrity and an unparalleled commitment from a unified and active Illini Nation, together we can build an athletics program befitting our great institution. I would like to thank the Board of Trustees, President (Tim) Killeen, Chancellor (Barbara) Wilson and Illini everywhere for their trust and faith in me. I will work tirelessly to achieve our goals. The future is bright for the Illini."
In addition to his ties to Illinois, Whitman has worked as an athletics director at a pair of Division-III institutions, most recently at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to that, he worked as athletics director at Wisconsin-La Crosse.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]
“He understands the business of modern college athletics, but he hasn’t lost any of the sense of fun and joy that should be part of amateur sports,” Wilson said of Whitman in the announcement. “At Illinois we want to compete hard, act with integrity and give our student-athletes the kind of positive experiences that stay with them throughout their lives and careers. If you want to see what that looks like, you just have to look at the leadership and accomplishments of Josh Whitman.”
“Josh is well-respected, very bright, and as an alum, knows what it means to be a member of the Fighting Illini,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in the announcement. “He will be a terrific addition to the university and the conference, and we look forward to working with him.”
Whitman steps into a job with many challenges. Last year, the Illinois athletics department was under siege, with multiple programs dealing with allegations of student-athlete mistreatment. While no evidence was found to support allegations that the women's basketball program created an "environment of racial hostility," an investigation into the football program supported allegations that former head coach Tim Beckman mistreated his players. Thomas fired Beckman a week before the season started, and when more details from that investigation came out in early November, Thomas was out, too.
On top of those issues, the two highest-profile programs — football and men's basketball — have struggled in recent seasons. Illinois' football team has made just one bowl game in the past four seasons, and the Illinois men's basketball team under head coach John Groce is expected to miss the NCAA tournament for the third straight season. The future of both programs' head coaches is hardly crystal clear. Interim athletics director Paul Kowalczyk gave head football coach Bill Cubit — who worked as the interim coach from Beckman's firing until the final game of the season — just a two-year contract, seen by most observers as a poor decision that could negatively impact recruiting efforts.
But surely Illinois finally settling on a successor to Thomas has to be seen as a positive, finally getting someone in place on a permanent basis.