One of the biggest challenges for new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman will be changing the perception of his department across the state as well as selling top-notch in-state high school talent on playing for the Illini.
In both football and basketball, recent recruiting cycles have seen the state's top high school prospects bypass Illinois and opt for out-of-state schools in the Big Ten, at Notre Dame and farther away from the Land of Lincoln.
So how does Whitman help his head coaches sell the state's flagship institution to the top recruits in Chicago, the suburbs and from all over the state?
"I think it starts a lot earlier than (high school). I think ultimately we want kids in our state to grow up being Illini fans, we want them to bleed orange and blue from the time they can remember," Whitman said in an interview Thursday at Comcast SportsNet. "To me, it's not dealing with them when they're 18 and 17 years old, it's when they're seven and eight years old and giving them something to be excited about and they reflect back and say, 'I grew up wanting to play for the University of Illinois, here's my opportunity.' And certainly there's more to it than that. We are going to have to do a good job of developing those relationships with the coaches, the student-athletes here in the city and across the state. I know that our folks can do that, and certainly that'll be an emphasis for us."
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Whitman himself is a good template for kids who might be deciding whether or not to play in Champaign. He spent four years in the Illinois football program and worked in the Illinois athletics department when he returned to campus to earn his law degree.
He spoke with tremendous passion about the university during his introductory press conference on Thursday morning, and he told CSN that he hopes the Illini faithful can use his excitement and pride for his alma mater as a spring board to boost their own enthusiasm surrounding the athletics programs.
"We want our fanbase to be excited about what we're doing. We want them to buy into Illinois athletics and understand we're taking positive steps in the right direction," Whitman said. "And so, if nothing else, I hope that people see the intensity and the excitement that I have for the program and can use that as a spring board for their own feelings about what we're doing and the pride they have in the orange and blue."
Check out the video above for the full interview with Whitman, which includes Chicago sports' most hard-hitting question: Cubs or Sox?