Josh Whitman Q&A: 'We want to ignite and inspire our fan base'
New Illinois A.D. Josh Whitman is a lot of things. He’s smart, engaging and hard-working. He also is a man of action. To wit: On his first day on the job, he fired Bill Cubit and within a few days, he was introducing Lovie Smith as his new coach.
Just like that, the image of Illinois football changed. Now, it’s up to Smith to make it happen on the field. But it was Whitman who moved swiftly and boldly to foster a new direction for a struggling program that needed a megadose of hope … and got it with Smith’s hiring.
The new leader of the athletic department is a wunderkind, a fast-riser who is going places. Whitman is 37 going on 57, a man wise beyond his age who knows what he wants … and knows how to get it.
Ask anyone to describe Whitman, and one of the first words you’ll hear is “smart.” No doubt, he has plenty of academic heft in his background. Whitman was a model student who graduated with highest honors in finance in 2001 while catching passes as a tight end for Ron Turner’s Illini from 1997-2000. He later earned a law degree from Illinois after a peripatetic four-year pro football journey. Whitman cut his teeth as an AD at UW-LaCrosse and Washington University in St. Louis before coming home.
I caught up with Whitman in his office which offers a sweeping view of State Farm Center and Memorial Stadium.
Q: Who impacted you most as a youth?
A: Beyond my parents, one of my first basketball coaches. His son was a classmate and friend of mine. He coached me for years. This was before AAU had become a thing. He coached a junior high girls’ team, which meant he had keys to a gym. He would call my house a few nights a week and say, ‘We are going to the gym, does Josh want to go?’ I remember fondly those nights going to an empty gym. I think that planted the seeds with me about work ethic, commitment and how you have to practice to become good at something. Working on skills and development when no one else is watching was a strong lesson.
Q: How did your parents shape you?
A: Mom was a teacher in West Lafayette (Ind.) schools. She moved around and taught first grade for a long time before later becoming a librarian. My dad played college basketball at what is now the University of Indianapolis but then was Indiana Central. My dad was a high school chemistry teacher for a long time and he coached tennis and basketball and then transitioned into administration and later owned and operated an educational website. From my earliest memories, I had a book and a ball. A lot of my time as a kid was spent playing a sport or reading. My mom and dad were huge readers. I always had books around me and was playing some kind of ball.
Q: Any all-time favorite books?
A: There is a series of books that I still adore, the “Chip Hilton” series by Clair Bee. Chip was this sports hero and had a group of friends with a coach who coached everything. As a kid, I got access to those books and read the whole series. In some ways, I have poetic views of athletics. And some of that was probably formed through reading those books.
Q: Who are some of your role models as leaders?
A: As I have gotten older, I have taken to studying leadership. I have been fortunate over my life to interact with a number of people who I think are exceptional leaders. I have tried to take things I have learned and composite it into who I try to be as a leader. I learned a lot through (former Illinois A.D.) Ron Gunther. I spent a lot of time with him as an undergraduate and as I got older. I respected the way he went about his business and the type of relationships he was able to develop, the way people in this building talked about him and the way they treated him was impactful to me.
Different coaches impacted me. My high school coach at Harrison, A.J. Rickard, was a legend. One of the most influential people in my life, the way he treated other people, his competitiveness, his integrity, the way he approached each of us and the high standard he held. We all as players put him on a pedestal, this rock star figure. It was exciting to play for him.
Q: You often are characterized as “smart.” How important is education to you?
A: I have been labeled “smart,” but I don’t always see it. I just worked really hard. Sunday and Monday were my school days. And I hammered it for two straight days. I did my work every day, but I really hit it hard on those two days. People talk about what a great student I was, but it wasn’t always that way. My first semester as a freshman, my first exam was in I think Econ 103, Macro Economics. I got a D-minus. It was all essay. Worst I ever had done on an exam my whole life. It shook me to the core. I thought I knew how to study but it turned out I had no idea. That ended up being one of my A-minuses, and I was happy to get it. To fight back from a D-minus to an A-minus was a big victory for me. That was a humbling, welcome-to-college moment.
Q: You are famous for writing personal letters and notes to people. Why is that special to you?
A: I think life is about relationships. At the end of the day, it’s about who we spend our time with and the impact we make on those people. I try to stay connected. Sometimes you aren’t sure if people read what your write. My old assistant at UW LaCrosse hated it because we used to send out 400 holiday cards. It would be a multi-week process. I would take a stack home each night and write in them.
We sent one to Norv Turner in San Diego when he was head coach. He was a patron saint of mine while playing football. He brought me to San Diego and later Miami. He believed in me when few people would. He was about to get fired. In the card I sent him, I told him that he had changed my life. I told him to remember the type of impact he was having on people while he was going through a rough time. He got fired, and at the press conference he talked about getting the letter from me. My phone started to ring after that. It was a meaningful moment for me to know these cards I send out actually do get read and do matter to people. I am a strong believer in the written word, especially in today’s day and age. I think that came from my mom and dad. And I take a lot of pride in writing.
Q: What are your goals at Illinois?
A: Some are short-term, some are long-term goals. In the short term, we want to ignite and inspire our fan base. We want to give people something to be excited about. We want to return hope to the Fighting Illini. For too long, some of our fans have walked around with their heads down and shoulders slumped. They haven’t been proud of our athletic program. That’s unacceptable. Anything we can do to get them excited and hopeful about what we are doing is a short-term goal but very significant.
Secondly, the reason I got involved was to have an impact on students. Everything good that has happened to me since I left here was because of the time I spent here. Relationships, education, experience … it has continued to open doors for me. If we can create an environment that allows our student-athletes to have that same experience, where they are empowered with the skills and relationships to go off and do the same things I did, then I think we have accomplished a significant goal.
At the end of the day, I am en educator and teacher. If you lose sight of that core mission, then I think I would want to do something different. There is a level of social importance to what we do in college athletics that isn’t found in professional sports. It’s the student. That’s what drew me into this world.
And we want to be successful. We expect to be one of the nation’s strongest athletic programs. We have a great university.
Q: What is your favorite memory as an Illini player?
A: I end up talking about this game almost every day. My senior year (2000), we opened the Big Ten schedule with a night game at home vs. Michigan. It was on national TV. It was packed. We had beaten them the year before in a comeback win. It was a highly anticipated game. We got beat. But I never will forget that night. The fact we got beat eats at me every day. But just having the opportunity to play in that game meant a lot to me. That is the type of environment we want to create.
Q: When you were a student, where did you hang out?
A: Same places as everyone, Kam’s, C.O. Daniel’s and the place that used to be called Bubs. You are in college and everyone wants to have a good time. It was fun to be a part of that. I wasn’t a big drinker in college, but it was important to be a part of our team. I ended up on more nights than I care to remember kinda being the voice of reason as the bars closed. Someone has to do that role, and I was happy to do it. As a result, I hope my teammates respected me. I didn’t stay in my room and do homework each night. I thought it was important to be with my teammates. I have great relationships, as a result.
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