CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said Thursday he wants to restore what he believes is the lost identity of the school’s sports teams.
And after a painful year of firings and turmoil in the administration both in and outside of sports, Whitman told a room packed with fans and athletics staff that he wants to do something Illini teams have sometimes struggled to do.READ MORE: Chicago Public Library Posts Archive Of Speeches By Mayor Harold Washington, Born 99 Years Ago Thursday
“We will win, it’s important,” the 37-year-old former Illinois and NFL football player said during his introductory news conference on campus. “That’s what everybody’s thirsty for. We don’t get in this to come in second place.”
The football team has endured four straight losing seasons and the basketball team is on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament a third straight year, something that hasn’t happened since 1978-80.
But the 37-year-old Whitman, who said he hopes the Illinois AD position is the last job he ever has, faces those larger issues, too.
Football coach Tim Beckman was fired in August after a law firm hired by the university concluded he interfered in player medical decisions. A lawsuit filed by seven former women’s basketball players accusing coach Matt Bollant and some staff of creating a racially hostile environment is still working its way through federal court. All of that was followed by the firing in November of the last AD, Mike Thomas.
Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said Thursday she believed from her initial interview with him that Whitman, who has been AD only at a pair of Division III schools, Washington University and Wisconsin-La Crosse, was the man for the job.
“I was looking at the next AD right there,” Wilson said. “He just is an impressive person.”
Whitman’s contract will run five years, paying him $600,000 a year in base salary, Wilson said. Bonuses and other compensation are still being worked out.
Whitman was a starting tight end for Illinois from 1997-2000 before going on to a brief NFL career that included stops in the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins.
He earned a law degree at Illinois and worked for almost four years in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics he will now run.
One of Whitman’s old Illini helmets, which he said he’s had in every office where he’s worked, sat on the table beside him Thursday, and he said his first date with his wife, Hope, was a trip to an Illini game.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Cooler Than Normal
Wilson called the fact that Whitman played at Illinois, something some alumni had insisted be a job criteria after Thomas was fired, “icing on the cake.”
For some in the room Thursday, including coaches who will work for Whitman, having a new AD hired is a relief.
“It’s been a long 12 months,” said football coach Bill Cubit, who took over last fall when Beckman was fired but has only a short, two-year contract. “Now you feel like, OK, let’s get this going.”
Whitman was short on specifics Thursday, acknowledging he does not know enough yet to start laying out big ideas.
He called the allegations against Beckman, which were first raised by a former player in May, concerning. He said he wants to make sure that medical staff and the compliance officials who deal with NCAA rules can act “without fears of reprisal.”
Whitman acknowledged Division III sports are different than the Big Ten. He noted he once spent part of a cold, rainy track meet at Wisconsin-La Crosse moving hurdles, earning a reprimand from an official who didn’t realize he was the AD.
But Whitman insisted there are more similarities than differences.
He also drew a rough outline of what he wants Illinois identity to become.
“We’re going to be tough. We’re going to be gritty,” he said. “And we’re going to do it all with integrity. We’re not going to cut corners to succeed.”
Later Thursday he was headed for another news conference in Chicago, the city that Illinois regularly tries to win over but acknowledges is sometimes indifferent to Illini sports. A stop in St. Louis, another important market, is planned for Friday.MORE NEWS: 2 Dogs Killed, 7 People Left Homeless After Waukegan Fire
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.