‘SEVEN ON SEVEN’ SERIES WITH JOSH WHITMAN, ILLINOIS ATHLETIC DIRECTOR
Illinois alumnus Josh Whitman is the University’s 14th permanent athletic director. His previous AD experience includes stints at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and Washington University, where his teams earned four national championships and 34 conference championships. He also had a 2-year NFL career as a tight end with the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. Whitman visited with FBA Communications about his new challenge at his alma mater.
How have your experiences at both Wisconsin-LaCrosse and Washington University prepared you for your new position at Illinois?
“I think everywhere you go, every stop on your personal journey, you take things from each experience. At every level and [school] size, you gain valuable experience managing people, dealing with what can often be controlled chaos. All those things are important.”
Even as an Illinois alumnus, you have returned to Champaign in what has been a tumultuous period for Fighting Illini athletics. What do you see as the areas that will require your immediate attention?
“The biggest thing for us is restoring a sense of hope and enthusiasm around our program. That’s true for the people inside our building as well as fans, donors and alumni; everyone needs to feel good about the Fighting Illini. I am optimistic as to what the future holds. Building pride and excitement around our program is a first and foremost priority.”
You struck quickly upon your return, hiring Lovie Smith as your new football coach. What attracted you to Lovie as a Big Ten head coach when he had not coached on the collegiate level for quite some time?
“When I look at Lovie, I see one of the best football coaches in America. I am not hung up on where he coached. He’s worked on the biggest stage, the NFL and [coaching] in the Super Bowl. There are some differences [coaching in college] but he can straddle that curve. What attracted me to him was his level of integrity, his approach to the day-to-day work, and mentoring and developing players. That is the starting point for me. He will do things the right way. He is a world class coach.”
As a former Illinois player, you understand full well how competitive today’s Big Ten football is. What is it going to take to get Illinois into the upper echelon of the conference?
“Well, I think it starts, and this sounds clicheish, but it begins with attitude, culture and believing in what we are doing to get ourselves where we want to go. People here have lost some of that. We want to rally people around a vision. Confidence is an amazing thing. We have lacked self-confidence here. Here we are in the country’s third largest city, associated with one of the great universities. The list goes on and on as to why we should be one of the great athletic programs. We have to help people realize that, the opportunity that is in front of us. It’s not just hoping you’re going to be great, it’s believing you are going to be great. I think we have that in front of us.”
At your two previous schools, you were known for advances in academics, fundraising and facilities. How much needs to be done in each of these areas at Illinois?
“We’re in the process of wrapping our arms around that right now. Academically, we are strong and all our teams are performing at a very high level in that regards. Fundraising has been a challenge. The numbers for football and men’s basketball have not been what we would like them to be. That has to become a significant emphasis for us. We really need our fundraising arm to be healthy and strong. As for facilities, with any program of our size, we need to keep working on the physical plant.”
When you were interviewed by both the search committee and the Korn-Ferry search firm, what was your approach to the process and which points of emphasis did you prioritize?
“In these kinds of situations, I always go into it being true to who I am. Being genuine, being sincere, caring about the people around me, caring about the institution, caring about the student-athletes. I just wanted to be myself, and if that resonated with the committee, that is a great outcome. A lot of who I am came from the time I spent on this campus. [The committee] could sense the passion I have for this place, the excitement and enthusiasm that I would bring.”
At age 37, you would be considered an ‘old’ NFL tight end, but a ‘young’ Big Ten athletic director. What did your time at the professional level teach/help you in terms of the intercollegiate athletic model?
“I think more than anything, it pulled the curtain back on what I consider to be the most well-run professional sports organization in the world. No question there are some similarities between the college and pro worlds. When you look at our football game day environment, we do operate a very significant business. It has been enlightening for me to see how the NFL operates, being around some of the finest coaches in the world, that network has served me well. When I was a player, I stole a lot of ideas, many that I apply in my day to day life and work.”