CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps lost in the excitement generated by Lovie Smith's introduction Monday was the enormity of what has happened for the Illinois football program in just three days.
Josh Whitman's first day as Illinois' new athletics director was Saturday. Since, he dismissed Bill Cubit and hired Smith, in doing so dramatically transforming the direction of the program, taking it from Big Ten laughingstock to a program worth watching with a respected, successful coach at the helm.
The last two Illinois head coaches came to the Illini following head-coaching jobs in the MAC, and they did little to establish a winning culture of any kind. Tim Beckman was a disaster, ousted a week before last season started after allegations of student-athlete mistreatment were found to be true. Cubit didn't have much of a chance, and with only a two-year contract in hand, the future of program under his leadership didn't have anyone excited.
Smith's hiring has changed all that. He has fans thrilled, his NFL resume could have recruits lining up, and most importantly he has given everyone a reason to pay attention to Illinois football again.
And it's all Whitman's doing.
“I think we took a bold step forward," Whitman said. "And you’re seeing the enthusiasm, the support from our fans, from our student body. It certainly is a big statement for our university and hopefully enters us into a national conversation that we’ve been absent from for far too long.”
It was evident from his first words as Illinois' athletics director that Whitman has a passion for his alma mater and for its football program in particular. Whitman played for the Illini under Ron Turner and leaned on his old coach to connect with Smith.
Smith might have got a positive review from Turner, but Whitman is the one who won him over.
“I bought into his message and the direction he was taking the program fairly quick," Smith said.
Whitman has been nothing if not decisive, taking swift action in revolutionizing the football program. But it is the entire athletics department that needed a makeover. The allegations against Beckman weren't the only ones facing Illinois last year. There was an additional investigation into the women's basketball program, which resulted in allegations of racial hostility being deemed unfounded. Athletics director Mike Thomas departed not long after Beckman when more details of the football coach's behavior emerged. Then the university took a seemingly inordinately long time to finally settle on Thomas' successor — giving Cubit that strange two-year deal along the way — in a search that was reported as being haphazard and unorthodox.
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But Whitman has put all of those woes in the rearview mirror. He doesn't want to be called the savior of Illinois athletics, but his work in just a few short days combined with his overall professional demeanor and passion for the university make him seem like just that.
He didn't give nearly as glowing an assessment, but he knows that things are turning around in Champaign. And it's his work that's making that happen.
"We turn the page on what has been a challenging past and begin walking the walk in regards to a standard of excellence and a culture of champions," Whitman said. "We will hire the best. We will not deliberate. We will move decisively. We’ll position our people, our coaches, our student-athletes to be successful in every facet of their experience at our university.
“I think that we’re making that turn. I think that this is a bold statement, it’s an important statement. Football is our engine. It certainly drives us financially, it sets the tone for our fans. But let’s not lose sight of the other incredible pieces of our athletic program. Football does set an important tone for the department, but we’ve got a lot of incredible people here doing incredible work.”