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.