Sitting down with Josh Whitman

Sitting down with Josh Whitman

Josh Whitman has stayed busy in his first 15 months on the job as the Illinois athletic director. From firing and hiring coaches, to developing renovation plans for Memorial Stadium and much more, the 38-year-old Whitman doesn't lack for things to do. He held court with the media earlier this week on the UI campus, and The News-Gazette's Marcus Jackson was there.

From a competitive standpoint on the field, how do you look back at 2016-17?

I think we did some really good things. No question we continue to have some room to grow and improve. I'm really proud of where some of our programs are. Obviously, men's golf has done some incredible things. Men's gymnastics had another nice year. Wrestling had a great season, softball continues to improve. You could go on down the list. Tennis had a nice year, cross-country had one of the great years we've had in a long time. What we've done with all of our sports programs is say "Look, we all know what the goal is, and the goal is to compete for Big Ten and national championships." The end point for most of our programs is the same. The difference is the starting point. You've got some sports like men's golf that's knocking on the door every year of competing for that national championship. We've got other programs that aren't at that same starting point, so the challenge for each of our head coaches is to work with us as the administration, and figure out how to go from Point A, wherever they are today, to Point B, which is ringing the bell and winning that title. We realize every program is not in the same position and we want them to develop that plan on how to get from where they are to where they want to be.

How would you compare the starting point for the two revenue sports in men's basketball and football?

Both those programs for us have great tradition, which is really important in today's world. We've done incredible things in both of those sports historically. We've shown that we can rise to the top. The challenge we've had is staying there. That's been a big part of my message to both of those coaches: Let's build something that's sustainable, let's build something that will endure and let's not cut corners in the short term. Let's do something that has a long view. Both coaches have embraced that approach. We're working very aggressively, collaboratively to do the things that are necessary to build toward that success.

Where are you in the building (facility) situation and have you made a decision about what you're going to do?

We have. The football project, you'll recall when we announced this in the fall, we put out some drawings from the original conceptual process that happened before I was hired and that was to put the football center, which is offices, training room, meeting spaces, locker room, weight room, all the football-centric spaces into the south horseshoe and to build a grandstand seating bowl around it. As we have now obtained the services of an architect, HNTB — HNTB, of course, was the firm that worked with us when we did the west and north on the stadium about 10 years ago. As we've traveled the country now and done a lot of benchmarking, what we've seen is most people are creating standalone football performance centers. It makes a lot of sense for us also. We've decided to move forward with that plan where we'll split the project into two separate buildings where you've got the football performance center and then the south stands and then we'll phase it in over time. We're going to focus in the short-term on the football performance space. That was the impetus for that project in the first place, to try and make sure our football program has the facilities they need to compete at the highest level. We'll take that building and attach it to the south of the indoor practice facility on the east side of the stadium at the north end. We'll build this onto the south end of that. It'll take up a little bit of our grass practice field space. It'll be incredible. The nice thing is you're not constrained by the footprint of the stadium. We've seen facilities, some that are contained within a stadium and some that are standalone. Those that are standalone, you basically have a blank canvas. You can go out there and do what you need to do from a design standpoint. This way we also won't have to tear anything down before we can start construction so we're able to get a little more aggressive in our timeline. It also allows us to save a little money in the short term. We're able to go from a $135 million project to — we don't know what the final numbers will be yet — probably somewhere in the $60-$80 million range for the one. We'll come back and we'll address the south and the east at a future date. We started doing some preliminary design work but we'll come back to that later.

When do you intend to tear down the horseshoe?

That'll be postponed for now. Once we come up with a final timeline on the south and the east, then we'll have a better sense for when that will happen. For now, that's been delayed.

For the south and the east portions, what will be done?

That'll be the second phase of this whole project. We do have some preliminary designs that we're working on for those. At this point, without a definite timeline of when those will happen, it's hard to say what they'll look like.

If money was no object, would this be ideal for you to have these two buildings? You mentioned the benefit of a blank canvas, but if you could snap your fingers and have what you want, would you rather it be as you originally talked about under the horseshoe?

No. This is what we want. There's no question about that as we've traveled around and seen these separate spaces. From a pure efficiency standpoint, having the football building more at the nexus of our football facility, you've got access immediately into the indoor building. You've got access to the south, to the grass practice fields and you've got access to the west to the stadium. That puts you more at the nexus point of those three key spaces for the football program. It'll be a wonderful building. I'm really excited about the future. We'll go through some approval processes here in the next month or so with some different campus committees and ultimately with our board of trustees.

What's the time frame for when you want to have this done?

For the football performance center, we'll break ground some time next calendar year and then have it completed in summer of 2019.

Do you plan to renovate the indoor facility at all?

It'll be an attachment to it for now. At some point, we may need to do something a little more substantial with the indoor, but I don't see that right now, although we're always looking at different options.

Will the Hall of Fame eventually go on the south end?

I haven't really said definitively where the Hall of Fame was going to go. We've talked about a number of different options. I've mentioned in a few different settings. One I really liked was when I went to Nebraska last fall, their Hall of Fame was an outdoor plaza. It was beautiful, it was really well done. I think we're evaluating a number of different ideas of where the physical embodiment of the Hall of Fame could go, and we haven't settled on a particular answer to that yet.

Are there other facility plans for other sports?

More so here than at other places, but this is probably true everywhere, the facility projects, as much as you might think they exist in a vacuum, what we found here is there's an interrelationship to all of them. I would liken it to having several sets of dominoes all lined up and we have to figure out which front domino we want to knock over and then that will determine the dominoes that follow. There's a couple loose ends we're trying to figure out as we formulate this entire facility plan. You can look straight east of us here and come up with a pretty easy list yourself of things that are on the list. Baseball certainly needs some attention. We've got a soccer facility that's shared with track. That's not ideal. Ideally you want to split those into two different venues. We've got an indoor track that's not where we need it to be. We've got a pool that's a problem. Kenny Gym is 500 years old it feels like. You've got Huff Hall, which is a wonderful venue, but has its own challenges. We've got some unbelievable facilities — our golf facility, our tennis facility are standards across the country. We want to try to develop our other facilities so they are on similar levels.

Do you want to finish the football stadium project before you get into the other ones?

Not necessarily. That's another thing that you realize is that if we were to just do these projects sequentially, it'll take 50 years for us to get through everything. We're going to have to tackle some of these things in parallel if we ultimately want to get the progress made that we need to in the time frame that we'd like.

Is it feasible that within five years a few of these are done? A new baseball stadium or whatever else?

I hope so. I hope that we're able to make some real progress on the facilities front in five years time, I think that would be great. Our state doesn't always make some of these projects easy so we've got to work through the different approval processes and funding mechanisms and a lot of moving parts, especially large-scale facility projects. If it's something $5, $10 million dollars, it's a little more manageable than $80 million or $100 million. I do think another benefit of phasing the football project the way we're talking about, it allows us to potentially divert some resources into some of these other facility projects we couldn't have done if we were putting $130 million into the football project right out of the box, so that's a nice additional benefit.

Ohio State and Michigan came out with some kind of report that said they will receive $51.1 million from the distributions from the Big Ten this year, which I assume would include Illinois. Are we still talking apples to apples here; is that what you will receive?

The Big Ten number is always a little bit variable because there are a lot of things that go into the distribution. You've got your bowl game distributions, you've got your Big Ten championship football game revenue. You've got your men's basketball tournament revenue. You've got revenues that come from the NCAA. The gate share that happens in football and men's basketball. Then the biggest piece is the media agreement. We don't know exactly what the number will be but we do anticipate it will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million.

This past year it was somewhere in the middle $30 (millions)?

Mid- to upper $30s.

So there's a chance for a $15 million jump there?

I don't know if it'll make it quite to $15 million, but somewhere between $10 million and $15 million.

When you're pitching these capital projects, how much does the debt of the department come into play? Are they supportive knowing you have to spend money to make money ultimately?

We have an obligation to the university to be good financial stewards. We have put a plan together that I think resonates with our leadership, the chancellor, president, the board. We understand that here in the short term we have to make some significant investments into the program in order for us to put ourselves in a position to operate in the black again in the relatively near future. If we don't make those investments, we're just digging ourselves into a deeper hole. Our model, it's not like we just created some new algorithm, we need to make football and men's basketball work for us. Those are out guide post sports. They're the ones that are going to ultimately give us the financial means that we need to reinvest into soccer, swimming, track and all the other sports we have. The biggest source of untapped revenue we have are the empty seats we have in the stadium and the basketball arena. We need to put winning teams on the field and on the court in order to put ourselves financially in a position to reinvest in the experience of all our other student-athletes. Our board and our leadership has been very understanding of that approach but they also expect us to have a good plan, and we do. We're very conservative in the projections that we've put together. We're very cognizant of the money we're spending. I do think it's important to continue to recognize that the money we spend is the money we generate. We're not spending university dollars. These revenue sources are different, and I know sometimes it's hard for our fans to understand that it's a different pool of revenue, and we're committed to staying that way.

Did the $350,000 John Groce receive in his new coaching gig subtract from the amount you had to give him when he left?

Yeah, that's known as a mitigating clause in a contract. John and Matt (Bollant) both had those clauses in their contracts. Everybody was fortunate that they were able to go off and get great positions and what they make from those new positions will be subtracted from the amounts we owe them.

Is that just two more years for John Groce?

You'd have to go back and look at the contract, I think that's right.

The reason I ask is because his contract jumps to $650,000 the third year, which would indicate to me that's what they're really paying him in the first place, which is kind of what you did with Lovie.

I remember.

You've invested a lot in Lovie Smith. How much do you have to invest in the rest of the football program to allow him to do what you want to do?

I think it would be short-sighted to invest the way we have in that coaching staff and then not invest in the other things that are necessary to bring the program forward. It would be like running the 100-yard dash and stopping after 50. You've got to pout all the pieces in place to build a championship program. Sometimes I liken it to cooking a great meal. You've got all the different ingredients and all the different things you want to come ready at the same time so you've got to put everything together in a manner strategically that it brings it all to a boil at the right moment. We've put plans in place now with the staff and the facility and you're starting to see it turn. What's important to remind people is 20 years ago I came here as a freshman. I was in Ron Turner's first recruiting class and we went 0-11. My second year we went out and went 3-8 and in today's world, people would panic, people would absolutely freak out and say "We've got to do something different" and there'd be wholesale changes on the coaching staff and people would say it's too slow. What happened in that third year, we flipped it. All of a sudden we're a Top-25 program. We won at Michigan, we won at Ohio State, two years after that they won the Big Ten. Everybody in that building knew that what we were doing was going to work. That's been a big part of our message to not just our fans, but to our student-athletes, our team, our coaches. We're in this for the long haul. We are developing a plan here that's going to yield long-term success. Let's not panic, let's continue to swing the sledge hammer every single day and have confidence in the direction this is going to go. I hope our fans continue to see that. Everything's inner related in this. When you go and we have recruits on campus for a game in the fall and they walk into a half-empty Memorial Stadium, what message does that send about where football is at the University of Illinois? They may choose to go somewhere else. In order for them to come, we need to show them it's important. We need our fans to show up, to be passionate about our program. It's kind of a chicken and the egg argument. How do you get people to get excited about a program that hasn't had great success in recent history? If we don't get that excitement, it's going to be hard to change the direction of where we're headed. What we've told them and we've told donors, our ticket holders, our fans, we need the buy in now. You can't wait and buy tickets after we're good. We need you to support us now in the moment and help us make the change and flip the switch. It's happening. I know some people are frustrated because some of these recruits are going other places, but we're in conversations for some great players and we weren't in those conversations a couple years ago. This is a process. You've got to get in the conversation first. We're going to get some, we're not going to get some, but over time we're going to start to get more, and ultimately we're going to get enough and we're going to start winning a lot of football games. This is a process. It takes a long time to build something that is ultimately going to be at the level that we all want. I couldn't be more confident and more excited about the direction that program's headed.

How did those first two years in your playing career help you now watching a program struggling?

It does help. I met (recently) with our freshmen student-athletes who are all on campus here now for (the last) week. They're fresh-faced and kind of wide-eyed. It helps to have some perspective. I told them "You're going to be a very attractive candidate for employment when you finish here because you've been through adversity, you've seen first hand what it feels like to fail in a very public setting when things matter." I always tell people when you've dropped a pass in front of 75,000 people, getting yelled at by your boss doesn't feel like that big of a deal. It gives you a level of self confidence that is hard to find in other settings. Relaying back to that experience for me, I think has been invaluable. I draw on that all the time. There were very few people in the world who believed in what we were doing other than the people in the building. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life to be with a group of guys who knew what was happening and who were committed to each other, committed to making it better. One of my favorite stories, I call it the story of the egg. The idea is you put this egg on the table and day after day to the outside observer, that egg looks exactly the same as it did the day before. In reality, as we all know on the inside of that egg there's something pretty incredible happening. There's all this change and growth and development. All of a sudden, one day this thing cracks the egg open an this beautiful chick walks out. I talk about that with respect to our program that from a day-to-day standpoint from he outside perspective, it may be that our program doesn't look that much different, but we all know working here and contributing to this, there's some pretty incredible things happening on the inside of the egg and one of these days it's going to crack open and this unbelievable things is going to stand up. That's been a big part of our message. We just have to stay true to what we believe will work with some stability and some confidence and some more work, it will happen.

You're preaching patience, but when would you like to see some of the returns on this investment?

We're in it for the long haul. I'm not somebody who's going to sit here and paint myself into a corner and say it's going to happen this year or that year. I ask myself the same question every year in evaluating every sport. Are we doing the things that are necessary in order to build a championship program? If the answer to that is yes, then I can sleep well at night and feel confident about the future direction of that program. That's what we're looking for, progress. We have the opportunity to live inside the egg and we get to see what's happening day-to-day and make judgements about the progress that's being made that may not be immediately visible to the outside world.

If I'm a coach for you and my program doesn't have a winning season, what are the conversations that you might have? What are the things that you talk about? I don't know if this is the case here, but coaches are looking over their shoulder wondering if they're going to get the axe.

I really value the relationships I have with our head coaches. I want them to feel supported, I want them to feel like they have every opportunity here to be successful. A big part of that is having very candid, transparent conversations. I think that's a really big part of effective leadership, not just sitting around shooting the breeze every day, but being able to dive into difficult situations. We'll have those conversations, but I ask a lot of questions. I'm not accusatory, I don't try and belittle people, I want to ask intelligent questions and have genuine conversation about what's working and what's not. I think sometimes that conversation is colored in large part based on tenure, how long a coach has been here. Early in a coach's tenure, you're going to be much more interested in process. At some point, there's no bright light, it doesn't happen in Year 3 or Year 4, it just happens. You cross a threshold and all of a sudden you're looking a lot more at results. It differs depending on coach and sport, but you can't shy away from those hard conversations.

Who influenced your philosophy on relationships the most?

I've had a lot of mentors. Just growing up in athletics, being around some great coaches really has a lot to do with how you view the world and how you approach leadership. In sports, accountability is kind of built into the whole deal. We'd sit there in a Sunday after playing a game here on Saturday and in front of the whole team it's up there in plain color for everyone to see if you made the block or made the catch or didn't. There's no place to hide and that was certainly true here and in the NFL as well. You get used to having feedback and being a part of an organization that expects your best. Without naming anybody individually, it was a culmination of being around a lot of really effective leaders over the course of my career.

You're a competitor, you want to win. Is it tough to sit back and have a longterm approach with your biggest sports?

I am a competitor, but I'm a grinder. I love the process. When I was playing football, the thing I loved the most was the preparation. I'd look forward to the two, three hours a day in the weight room. I'd look forward to the 200 or 300 balls I was going to catch off the JUGS machine. I looked forward to being so tired I couldn't breathe after a run. I just loved the grittiness and the routine and going day in and day out and moving the sled a little bit. It's been the same here. I really love the process, I love the effort that's required to make improvement. The results are the results. Everybody is a competitor. Everybody wants to win when the lights come on, but it's all the hard work that goes into it that really makes it special. I'm as energized as I've ever been, and I look forward to the day when the results are there, but I know it'll be that much sweeter because I've had a chance to be a part of the process.

Have you had a chance to reflect on everything you've done?

A bit. This summer, it's been a whirlwind for (my wife) Hope and me in a lot of senses. We came last spring, got here last summer, working really hard to get things going and then went through the first year, had the baby in the fall, so this summer's the first chance we've had in several years to step back for a moment and really think about all that has happened here in the last two years. It's inspiring. I continue to be humbled by the opportunity to be here, to provide some influence and leadership to this place and these people who I care so much about. I always hoped that I would have the opportunity. I never knew if or when it would happen, but the chance to be back here at a time of need for our athletic program has been one of the great privileges of my life.

Indiana recently instituted a policy which bans teams from adding players who have any past history of domestic violence or sexual assault. Have you considered something like that here?

We (had) a retreat with all of our head coaches (on Wednesday), our executive staff. We take the end of the school year and summer as a chance to do a lot of big-picture thinking and planning. That is one of the items on our agenda, to talk about that with our coaches. What you always want to guard against, in situations like that, is jumping onto something because it seems like the popular thing to do at the moment. You want to be sure you think through the broader implications of any policy like that you put in place. I certainly see the value, but I want to be sure we're not missing some unexpected consequence of a policy like that. I think it's something we've made evident through our actions here over the last year that we care a lot about. Policy decisions are pretty big, so we want to be sure that it's one we think makes sense for us.

What are some of the intricacies you've thought about with that?

It would be a bit premature to comment on it. I'm really looking forward to the discussion with the staff. I always think our coaches and our executive group have good perspective on things. I think on the knee-jerk look is there probably isn't much downside. But we always take a lot of pride in digging a little more deeply into the things before we put anything into effect.

When Simon Cvijanovic started up, I always thought Illinois was going to be the guinea pig of this process and players having a voice and you guys settled with him. How does that change things now that you guys decided to settle with someone with those allegations?

Simon was part of a difficult chapter for us, that's no secret. I think we were excited to turn the page. We've been very committed to looking forward with all of our decisions, with our actions. Simon's piece was continuing to linger out there, so we were happy to put that behind us officially and really move forward. Whether it opens us up to future situations, I don't think so. As we put that together, we were very careful to frame that as narrowly as we could. We certainly are committed to the well-being and health of our student-athletes. I feel good about a lot of the things we've implemented in the last year and a half to be sure we're responsive to their needs.

Do you have any kind of a guarantee or a signing by the players that if the medical staff clears them and they're agreeable to play that there will be no possibility for future litigation?

Not to my knowledge, although I'm not intimately familiar with every form that we ask the athletes to sign. I do think regardless of the Simon situation, I do think that the reality of our world is that we're probably going to see more litigation in the future, not just Illinois, but colleges across the country. Most universities have seen their litigation expenses go up in the last five years, and I don't see that being a trend that necessarily goes the other direction any time soon. Some are related to student-athlete health and well being and some are related to other issues.

My point is you would be safe from your standpoint as long as the medical staff has cleared a player to play and he agreed with the medical decision?

In theory, yes. But I don't think every time an athletes returns from a sprained ankle we ask him to sign a waiver that you agree you're healthy enough to go out and play now. I don't think that's happening. I don't know that that's necessary. When I was a football player, I remember the Dolphins asked me to sign a waiver that released them of liability of an injury that I had. It's not a very advantageous position for the athletes to be in. If somebody had a bad ankle and they recovered and they go out and play and the re-injure the ankle, we're going to care for them. The other challenge big picture is the lingering health effects of athletic participation. All of a sudden they have a knee issue — I'm starting to get bad knees, bad shoulders — are those attributable to the four years I was at the University of Illinois? Are they attributable to the four years I played in the NFL or the eight years I played football before I stepped foot on this campus? It's hard to know that but that's another issue that's probably bubbling out there, some of these longterm health situations of former student-athletes. But the challenge there, I think being a reformed lawyer, is causation and figuring out what actually caused what. That's a difficult thing.

You have two other pending lawsuits with former Illini Casey Conine and Anthony Durkin. Do you envision settling with those?

They're both pending. I think it would be premature for me to comment on what our strategy or approach to either of those would be. Every lawsuit's different and the circumstances are always unique. There is no overarching philosophy that we're always going to settle or we're always going to fight. It just depends on the circumstances of the case. Both are still out there working through or general counsel office.

What types of things are happening here at the university, whether it's the football program, the soccer program, to help athletes better deal with concussions?

We've tried to be very progressive in the healthcare of our student-athletes in all facets of their experience. Certainly head injuries is at the forefront of a lot of peoples' minds — no pun intended — in these times. We've tried to be as progressive as we can be. We've spared no expense when it comes to the equipment that our teams are using, whether it's soccer or football or any other sports. We've engaged with some of our colleagues across campus on a number of different studies, trying to identify the effects of head injuries and efforts that can be made to proactively prevent them from happening. You've seen recent legislation pass by the NCAA that continues to try and make football a safer and safer game, outlawing double-session practices starting this fall. You're seeing a national effort, not just in Illinois, to make all of our sports safer, particularly when it comes to head injuries.

Do you have to kind of take it out of the players' hands?

I think in large part you do. The NFL has gone to the third-party medical observer in the press box where they see something happen and it's not the player's choice if they come out of the game, they have to come out of the game. I've seen those studies. I remember when I was in law school, I wrote a paper and there was something like "If you're an Olympian and you win a gold medal, would you trade your gold medal for 10 years of your life?" And 85 percent of the Olympians said yes. There's a willingness on the part of some athletes to be narrowly and present focused that serves them well in a lot of what they do but we have to recognize where some of those limitations may arise and be protective of them int he right moments.

Is there any third-party involvement in colleges?

We've talked about it, I don't think we've implemented it yet but I know the Big Ten takes pride in being as progressive as we can be in a number of these things but I don't think we've implemented it as of yet.

What kind of challenges does the Big Ten moving the men's basketball tournament up a week present?

My understanding is that's just a one-year deal to make the opportunity for us to have the tournament at Madison Square Garden. What has been one of the hallmarks of Jim (Delany's) tenure is he's one of the more progressive and visionary people in college athletics. For us to have an East Coast presence, not just to have a presencebut to actually have activity there, is important. We saw that with the tournament in D.C. and now to take it to New York, the response has been great from our fans out in that part of the country. This year it poses some short-term scheduling challenges. I think our fans will enjoy a few Big Ten games earlier in the schedule than we've typically had. If we were to do it every year, I think it would be a bigger conversation but to do it this one year to have that platform at Madison Square Garden was pretty smart and we're looking forward to the experience.

Are you concerned with a couple weeks off potentially for a team that may lose early in the tournament?

I've got a lot of faith in (Brad Underwood) that he'll find a way to fill their time. I'm sure they'll stay as sharp as they can. Is it ideal? Maybe not, but the benefit of being in the Garden and having that presence in New York City is a great experience for our kids. A lot of people consider that to be the mecca of basketball so to be able to have the chance to play a tournament that has the meaning the Big Ten tournament has in that venue is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.

In football, do you plan on playing Missouri and restarting that rivalry?

I've been asked a lot about that. We'll see. I know Jim (Sterk) and I continue to say that. Lovie's excited about the opportunity, I am as well. Football scheduling is just a really delicate issue. It's scheduled so far in advance. That's my biggest frustration with it. I'd love to start playing them two, three years from now. By the time we can get them on the schedule, it'll be six, seven years down the road. There are some logistical items with it. Say we want to play in St. Louis, it's hard to know what the dome will look like in six or seven years unless they get a full-time tenant, (and) it's hard to imagine they're going to do a great job of keeping it up that long for one game, or two games a year. You could always bring it home and home, which is a nice fallback to have. Of course there's been mutual interest and just something we need to continue to explore and look for what makes the most sense.

What do you expect home attendance to be this year?

I hope it continues to improve. We were up 10 percent last year over the year before. It had been a long time since I had been to Illinois games as I was off with other programs. My sense from talking to people and just from walking around was that the atmosphere was improved. The parking lot scene was much better than it had been in recent years. Grange Grove has really started to take hold and get some footing with our fans. The tailgating atmosphere was really electric. I was part of the first Illini Walk back in '97 or '98 and the bus used to drop us off on Irwin Drive. Nobody knew it was happening. You'd walk up Irwin Drive and the first one there were three kids with a tuba, a couple of cheerleaders and my parents. That was it. To see the way that has evolved over the last 20 years and some of the changes we were able to make in the last year or two with the band and the cheerleaders, that has become much more of a part of the gameday tradition and I look forward to seeing that grow. The long answer to your question is I hope so. I hope fans saw some things last year that got them excited. I've not felt the way I felt standing on the field at kickoff for the North Carolina game for a very long time. The electricity in that venue — I know the game didn't end the way we wanted — I hope that our fans viewed it the same way I did, that our players did, that our coaches did as a glimpse of what's possible. We can do that every game. Nebraska's now had 350-some sellouts. They've sold out every game since 1963 or something. You know what they didn't expect in 1962? To sell out every game for 50 years. They had no idea that was going to happen, but they had to start with the first game and then the second game and then the third game and here we are all these years later with this incredible thing they've developed. We have to start somewhere. We hope to start with great attendance, a great atmosphere and eventually a great team. We're looking forward to that process.

Is the culture change everything you hoped for when Lovie Smith showed up?

It has been. We needed some tweaking in our culture, we needed our people to feel optimistic and confident that they were going to succeed. For a while, we felt kind of like the cartoon character with the dark cloud that followed him around and rained everywhere he went. We needed to get away from that and start to really stick our chest out and really feel good about being a part of the Illini athletic program. Frankly, that's a big part and the reason behind initiatives like the Hall of Fame. Let's celebrate who we are. We have a very strong heritage here, a great identity. We have 120 years of athletic history. Let's celebrate who we have and who's been a part of this program. To put that class together with some of those people and put them in a collection and look at and say "Wow, we've got some unbelievable pioneers in sport as part of our athletic family, let's celebrate that," has been a big effort on our part.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, what has been the response been to the gala that will take place tonight in Chicago?

The response has been fantastic. We will not have perfect attendance from the inductees, just a few will be missing and those will be folks who had other (arrangements). Nobody's sitting at home watching TV. They all had conflicts if they're not with us. It'll be a blue-star event. We're really excited about the evening. We've got Mike Tirico as the emcee, a lot of Illini greats in attendance. We're expecting a crowd of about 600. Black tie optional, a lot of tuxedos walking around, I imagine. It'll be special night. We're really looking forward to it.

What's going to be included in that football facility?

Coaches' offices, meeting rooms, locker room, training room, weight room, grand entryway, video facilities, teams spaces with a lounge. Everything we've seen in these other facilities, a pretty standard list of amenities, if you will, that you see in these buildings these days. We want to be sure we check all those boxes.

What's to become of the current coaches' offices and weight room?

I talked earlier about those dominoes, that's what we'll have to figure out. There are a lot of ideas for what we've thrown around that can go in those spaces. Nothing that I want to comment on yet. We'll put it to good use. There's a lot of great space there. I think it will become a really vibrant part of our athletic complex. There's two or three different directions we can go.

Is there a comparable facility that you modeled this after?

I can tell you some of the places we've been. Just in the course of traveling to some of our other events, we visited Oregon, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Texas A&M, Clemson, Kansas State, Tennessee. I personally have seen all those facilities and different groups of people have accompanied me on those trips.

People talk about facilities as an arms race. How important is that? Does it make a significant difference when it comes down to it?

It does make a difference. I wish it didn't. I really shy away from the term arms race. I know why people use it, and I don't necessarily disagree, I just don't like the phrase. What it does is it demonstrates an institution's commitment to a particular sport and that matters. Sometimes I get frustrated because one of the things I love about the NFL is that the focus was almost entirely on function. You didn't have these big fancy displays. If this is going to get you better, we're going to spend money on it and you're going to use it to get better. In college, there's that piece to it, but there's also a bit of the flash. The flash is there for the recruiting element of it, and it does matter. I wish that we could use money more on function and less on flash if I were making up my perfect world of college athletics. That's what I would like to see. That's not the world we're in. I think it's more the symbolism of the facilities more so than the facilities themselves. It just demonstrates that this particular sport matters to this school. As a prospective student-athlete, that's something we care about.

What's the future like for basketball when it comes to facilities for practice?

At the right time, we need to start engaging in a benchmarking process for that. I feel really good about what we've done at State Farm Center. I think it's one of the premier venues in all of college basketball. We want to be sure that we're making similar adjustments on the practice space as well. I don't think Ubben at this point is a disadvantage. I don't know that it's an advantage the way that it once was. At the right time, we'll need to wrap our arms around that one a little more and see what might be possible there.

Nebraska and Indiana have really nice basketball facilities. Have you had a chance to take a look at those?

I've seen Nebraska's, I've seen Michigan's. I have not seen Indiana's. I've seen Purdue's. I do know that is a place people are putting some resources now. We feel good about the facility we have, I don't think there's anything over there to apologize for. I will make adjustments on the margins to keep it updated and make sure it's competitive but at some point we'll probably need to take a deeper dive into that as well.

You've made six head coaching hires. How time consuming was that and what stood out to you in all those processes?

It is time consuming. I think that hiring head coaches is the most important job that I have. I care a lot about our student-athletes and the people who work more closely with our student-athletes than anybody and who have more influence over the experience of our student-athletes is the head coaches. I put a lot of time into those searches. Our staff puts a lot of time into those searches and it's important that we do those well. I feel really excited about those six people. I'm more broadly excited about our entire coaching staff top to bottom. New faces, old faces, it's a pretty talented group of people and really enthusiastic about the leadership they're going to provide to our teams. This year the challenge is to make sure those people get acclimated to our culture and our philosophy here at the university. It does take time and I think without having those to complete in the year ahead, hopefully we'll have some opportunity to devote some time to those other things.

What are some of those philosophies head coaches here need to grasp?

There are a lot of things that are unique to Illinois. Through the interview process, one of the most important things to me when talking to head coach candidates was I want to find people who have a genuine excitement about being at the University of Illinois. Not just about being in a Power 5 school, not just about being in the Big Ten, it's about being here. Now the they're here, we need to help educate them about what that really means. There's a commitment to integrity, doing things the right way, within the rules that's very important to us. There's commitment to student-athlete centeredness, to make sure they are at the center of what we do and keep them first and foremost. There's a humility and a confidence that comes from being a part of our program. And an understanding that we're all a part of something bigger, that there's a collegiality that exists within our department. One of our advantages compared to some of our peers and a lot of high major athletic programs, we're on the small side. We have 450 student-athletes. We have 21 sports. Some of our competitors have 900-1,000 student-athletes and they have 450 on staff and they have 30 sports. There's an intimacy to what we do here that I think is very helpful to developing a song culture and building relationships. We want all of our staff and student-athletes to buy into that approach and see that as an advantage.

How has fatherhood changed you?

In every way. It's been the most incredible thing I've ever experienced. It's given me a totally different perspective on life, which has been very needed over the last year and a half. You come home after a tough decision, tough games and she's oblivious to all of it and that's been a lot of fun. We've been fortunate. People talk a lot about work-life balance. For us, we've approached it like work-life integration. We try to find ways to combine what we do with our family life, and it's worked out really beautifully. I'm very fortunate to have a supportive wife, and she's been a fantastic mother. It's been great.

Any discussions about adding a program to the department?

You always talk about it. The sport module is topic of conversation frequently because we get asked about sports all the time. I've been asked about ballroom dancing, archery, you name it. I've been asked about e-sports. We're always throwing ideas around. You look at youth participation, high school participation. You see what other schools around the country, and particularly in the conference, are doing. It's a conversation. The challenge is money and understanding if you were going to add a men's sports that you'd need to add a women's sport also. There are a lot of moving parts to the sport conversation. You've got to find a venue, you've got to find a coach, you've got to figure out the scholarship thing, you've got to figure out the Title IX thing. There are five or six hard questions that have to be answered as you evaluate a potential sport program. You never say never. There are a lot of ideas out there. I get asked about hockey a lot. (Lacrosse) is probably the biggest female sport I'm asked about.

Comments

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cjw61822@hotmail.com wrote on June 23, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Please tell me that your FB coach did not just offer a scholarship to a 10 yoa as has been reported on other media.

 

Please tell me that is not something that you think is right.

Moonpie wrote on June 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm

So much cheerleading -- where to begin?

Let's see--well, he had to start with men's tiddlywinks and then women's chess and back to men's checkers and then the glee club before finally working his way to the bottom--football and hoops.

He needs a reality check -- fans don't have to blindly buy in. They have been handed lumps of coal long enought that it's on the programs to prove they are worth a buy in. I don't see that coming under Lovie Dovie Savior Man. Maybe, maybe,  -- maybe from The Latest Coaching Installment for Hoops.

Whitman can count on Ancient Tate to be a lemming, but the rest of the fans deserve to see a better product first.

jjohnson wrote on June 23, 2017 at 7:06 pm

I wish Moonpie and other nattering-nagbobs of pessimism would wait until reading to offer their comments. Whitman is telling a truth: a half-empty stadium does not inspire would-be recruits.

One reason it does not is because it tells a sad truth: the U of I for all its excellence depends in sports on a rather fair-weather-fan base. That is a statistical fact. Do I like seeing the Illini lose? I was [here] for our first even all-losing season, 1961, but also for our Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl winning 1963, just as I was [here] for all of the Ron Turner era games, from the dismal first season through the dismal final season (and for all the Zook and Beckman and . . .). Unlike the Cubs, whose fans seemed delightfully indifferent for years but kept coming to the world's largest outdoor bar anyway, the Illini have fans that do seem to care what is happening, but lack Cub fans' devotion to their team.

I'm a Sox fan, and I am envious of the Cubs, but we Sox fans are too representative of the only-when-they-win loyalty of so many Illinois fans.