Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 17, 2016

Illinois appears to have found the person to run its athletic department in Josh Whitman, and he is expected to be formally introduced this week. After that, Whitman will have a lot of work to do.

These haven?t been golden years of late in Champaign. Illinois? flagship school has seen its marquee programs of football and men?s basketball lag behind its peers. Whitman needs to foster and build an environment in which those sports and all the others can thrive for a proud institution with plenty of academic heft.

Former athletic director Mike Thomas couldn?t get it done. He was hired in August 2011 and subsequently changed football and basketball coaches, tabbing Tim Beckman and John Groce, respectively. But Thomas didn?t last long, getting fired on Nov. 9, 2015, after turmoil embroiled the football program.

In a stunning move, Thomas dismissed Beckman a week before the 2015 season began after an investigation showed he had mistreated players. The women?s hoops team also was swept up in controversy, while Groce struggled to get the men's program over the hump. Now, it?s Whitman?s job to smooth the waters for an athletic department that has endured some bumpy times.

Here?s a look at what?s on Whitman?s plate:

Men?s basketball: This program is poised to have its first losing record since 2007-08 (under Bruce Weber) and miss the NCAA tourney for the third year in a row. Illinois hasn?t missed the Big Dance three straight seasons since 1978-80. Groce made the NCAA tourney his first year in 2012-13, but can he get the job done? Whitman must make a decision on a coach who is in his fourth season in Champaign. Attendance is an issue, as no games have sold out this season. The good news: The State Farm Center had a $170 million renovation.

Football: Because the A.D. job was in flux, the school brass anointed Cubit as the the full-time coach after a 5-7 season as interim coach in place of Beckman. But the administration gave Cubit just a two-year deal, which isn?t an ideal situation in an industry where five-year contracts typically are the norm. This presumably was done so the new boss can make a decision on Cubit, who is basically auditioning for his job in 2016. The Fighting Illini have not had a winning record since 2011 or a winning Big Ten mark since 2007, and empty seats proliferate Memorial Stadium on Saturdays. The program had its lowest average attendance since 1998 last year (41,342). On top of all that, the stadium needs an upgrade. How will that be paid for?

Women?s hoops: Seven players have sued Illinois alleging coach Matt Bollant and his staff fostered a racially abusive environment. The on-court results have lagged, too, as the program is poised for a third consecutive losing season.

If that isn?t enough for Whitman to tackle, he also faces the possibility of working for someone other than the person who hired him. Interim chancellor Barb Wilson could be replaced by the start of the next school year.

No doubt, Whitman is a rising star in the athletic administration ranks who became the object of Illinois? desire when it realized it couldn?t land alum Rick George, now the A.D. at Colorado.

Whitman is just 37, the youngest AD in the Big Ten as he assumes command from interim A.D. Paul Kowalczyk. Whitman has degrees in finance and law from Illinois, where he was a tight end from 1997-2000 under Ron Turner. Whitman also cut his teeth in athletic administration in Champaign under A.D. Ron Guenther from 2005-08. Whitman, a native of West Lafayette, Ind. who grew up near Purdue, knows the Big Ten terrain.

But is Whitman ready for this step? His only experience as an A.D. has been at two Division III schools: first, Wisconsin-LaCrosse (2010-14); then, Washington University in St. Louis (2014-16). Moving to the Big Ten is a big, big step.

Whitman?s arrival continues a churn among Big Ten athletic directors. In fact, since 2012, five schools have hired new ones: Illinois, Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska.

And Minnesota and Purdue will push that number to seven when they make full-time hires. Beth Goetz is serving as the interim at Minnesota while Morgan Burke-the longest tenured athletic director in the Big Ten–recently announced he will step down in July 2017.

Here is a look at when each Big Ten athletic director was hired.

  • Morgan Burke, Purdue, 1993 (retiring)
  • Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin, 2004
  • Gene Smith, Ohio State, 2005
  • Gary Barta, Iowa, 2006
  • Mark Hollis, Michigan State, 2008
  • Jim Phillips, Northwestern, 2008
  • Fred Glass, Indiana, 2008
  • Kevin Anderson, Maryland, 2010
  • Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska, 2012
  • Sandy Barbour, Penn State, 2014
  • Beth Goetz, Minnesota, 2015 (interim)
  • Patrick Hobbs, Rutgers, 2015
  • Warde Manuel, Michigan, 2016
  • Josh Whitman, Illinois, 2016


Email Tom Dienhart using the form below.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.