The new University of Illinois AD, Josh Whitman (above), is a former tight end for the Fighting Illini football program who plans to bring pride and integrity back to Champaign.
Like the hire.
Like the energy and enthusiasm and passion that seems to emanate from it, not to mention the amount of each that seem to reside within the individual at the center of it all.
Indeed, after so much turmoil in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Illinois, it appears that school administrators who have come under so much fire, some of it deservedly so, hit a home run with Josh Whitman.
Or, more appropriately, scored a touchdown.
In naming the former Fighting Illini tight end as new athletic director, they successfully unearthed an intelligent and personable individual who not only seems to have the requisite skills to handle the position, but the unbending desire to do a great job. Not just for himself, but his family, friends, fellow alums, former teammates, the school, its students, its athletes, its fans and anyone else who has any sort of vested interest in himself and/or the Orange & Blue.
In most cases, yours truly would be scoffing at the idea that a school, an organization, a team would need to get “one of its own” in place to have any shot at righting a wayward ship and steering it in better direction. But Illinois is, oh, let’s say, a special case. Interim UI chancellor Barbara Wilson made a point during Thursday’s introductory press conference that bringing home an Illini was just “icing on the cake.”
Nah, it was a must. With things in Urbana-Champaign getting to their current point, someone who truly loves the university and grasps some of its glorious past and future potential had to be the choice. They had to have a relationship, a personal attachment to Illinois … and the Illini.
His detractors will point to his relative youth – he’s 37 – and inexperience – he’s only run athletic departments at the Division III level – but both could prove beneficial to the school, which needs an infusion of new ideas and new ways, not just the status quo, which may work elsewhere, but, frankly, hasn’t at Illinois.
Truth be told, the guy he’s replacing, Mike Thomas, wasn’t exactly abysmal. In five years, he led the fundraising charge that paved the way to several much-needed upgrades with UI athletic facilities, including the massive undertaking with the State Farm Center. But he seemed to lack that special touch it would take to get Illinois out of the athletic abyss.
Indeed, in a bitter twist to the current norm of big-business college athletics booming with fan bases bursting at the seams in attempts to be affiliated with such growth, Illini Nation has, at best, grown stagnant … although lifeless may be the more proper tag for it.
There is very little support for the school’s athletic programs, a somewhat shocking tale considering their membership in arguably the most prestigious conference in the country. OK, so remaining in the same “status”-phere with fellow Big Ten members Michigan and Ohio State may have been next to impossible. But failing behind, to varying degrees, the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska?
C’mon. Heck, even that tiny suburban Chicago school with all the smart kids has surpassed the Illini on the gridiron.
Granted, Thomas is hardly to blame for all that. The slide began long before he got on board in 2011. But, then again, he didn’t stop it, either.
With Whitman, at least, there seems to be something that had been lacking for so long: Hope.
OK, the Illini have their guy in place. Finally, after three months since Mike Thomas was removed as athletic director. Now, comes the hard part. Building a program befitting one of the nation’s top universities as it participates as a member of one of the nation’s premier sports conferences.
Josh Whitman, you’re on the clock.
First and foremost, he has two major issues, beyond the obvious need to gain support for the Illini, emotionally as well as monetarily, and they rest squarely with the two most important entities now under his domain: football and men’s basketball.
Time has run out ... Sorry, as nice a guy as John Groce seems to be, he was never the right guy to run the most recognized and respected program in Illini athletics. This season’s injury-derailed effort has yielded an unthinkable third straight non-NCAA tournament campaign for hoops, unless, of course, things get crazy at the conference tournament and the Orange & Blue actually walks out the winner. Unlikely, though. Reality is, Groce’s hire by Thomas was one of the lesser moves of the previous AD’s tenure. He’d coached at mid-major Ohio and, really, only had one very good season in four years. His resume, even with being part of Thad Matta’s staff at Ohio State previously, didn’t merit such a jump from the Mid-American to the Big Ten, and that has been born out with failures in recruiting and on the court. Probably didn’t help much that sophomore F Leron Black got suspended Friday afternoon following his early-morning nightclub arrest. A coaching change needs to be made. Immediately.
Stuck in neutral, or worse ...
The grid program, to which Whitman once belonged, has been consistently mediocre, or something less than that, for a long, long time, save for a season every decade or so in which the stars align and the Illini challenge for conference honors. Thomas made another odd hire in plucking Tim Beckman, also from the Mid-American, to run the show. Unlike Groce, though, his teams did show progress on the field. But allegations of mistreatment spelled his undoing, paving the way for Bill Cubit to take over prior to this past season. For all his glad-handing and grandfatherly speaking, Cubit’s most telling tales were these: the Illini lost six of their last seven games under his watch, and his offense, his baby, took a nosedive for a second straight season with, mind you, his type of QB (strong-armed and orders-follower Wes Lunt) at the helm. Perhaps Cubit deserves another year to see if he can ignite something here, but he doesn’t exactly give off the “harken back to glory days” vibe. If it were me, he’d already be gone.
Calls such as those are Whitman’s to make now. It’d be nice if the new AD got them right.