Asmussen: Whitman moving on up
ST. LOUIS — Talk about a tough act to follow.
All former Illini tight end-turned-athletic director Josh Whitman has to do is replace a guy (John Schael) who was AD for 36 years. And is a Division III legend.
On Aug. 1, Whitman takes charge of the Washington University athletic department. That follows a successful run at Wisconsin-La Crosse for the Illinois law school graduate.
“The people here saw something in me and took a bit of a risk,” Whitman said of his first AD job. “I hope as I prepare to leave that they feel like it was a risk that was worth it for them.”
Whitman inherited a successful La Crosse program. Just like the one he is stepping into in St. Louis.
The year before Whitman was hired at La Crosse, the school finished seventh in the Division III Director’s Cup. Another tough act to follow.
“There was great strength in the program,” Whitman said. “My first year, we finished 32nd, so I got a little nervous.”
Whitman entered his new career with an open mind and a fresh perspective. A veteran staff at La Crosse helped his initial term. But it wasn’t always easy.
“We’ve had no shortage of challenges,” Whitman said. “That first year was like the first year of law school. There is so much to learn and so many people to talk to and so many relationships to form. It can take as much time and you will give it.”
One of the smartest guys on an Illinois team of academic overachievers, Whitman started thinking about becoming an athletic administrator during his playing days in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I felt like my experiences as a student-athlete, as a child, then in high school and in college, was an integral part of who I am,” Whitman said. “The interaction I had with my teammates and my coaches, those are some of the most influential people in my life.
“In college, I became aware of this whole world behind the curtain, all these people who put on these events and operate these programs. I felt like that would give me an opportunity to do a lot of things that I enjoy.”
No surprise, Whitman credits his old athletic director at Illinois, Ron Guenther, for giving his career a boost.
When Whitman left Illinois after his playing career ended, Guenther told him, “You need to come back here at some point.”
“I always remembered that,” Whitman said.
“He became a good friend and mentor of mine. We spent a line of time together. I have tremendous respect for him.”
And Whitman has tremendous respect for current Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. After he was hired at Wash. U., Thomas was one of the first people he heard from.
Whitman didn’t have a chance to talk with Guenther before taking the job in St. Louis. The opportunity “happened very quickly.”
Guenther gave Whitman his first opportunity, hiring him at Illinois in 2005 as coordinator of special projects while the former player also attended law school.
Long term, Whitman plans to remain an AD.
“I’ve found something that matches my skills with my interest,” Whitman said.
Whitman’s mom recently retired after 40 years as an elementary school teacher.
“She said, ‘I never went to work a day of my life. I just always went to school.’ I feel the same way about what I’m doing now.”
The hours are long. Nights and weekends are busy. But it is all worth it. For the relationships with student-athletes and coaches. With people in the community.
“I think this is what I’m meant to do,” Whitman said. “I look forward to making a career of it.”
Jump forward a decade or two. After Thomas has retired following a long, successful career at Illinois. Might Whitman be interested in returning home?
Wait just a second. The guy just took a new job. One he is thrilled about. One he hopes to keep for years.
Of course, he enjoyed his time at Illinois. You never say never. Ask again later. Much later.
“I’m awfully excited about the Washington University opportunity,” Whitman said. “It’s a chance of a lifetime. I really see that as a career job. I think it’s a destination job.”
The destination job will keep him hopping during the school year. Wash. U. plays in a conference that includes big-city Brandeis, Emory, NYU and Case Western. Not a lot of time off for Whitman to return to C-U. He hasn’t been to an Illinois football game in years.
“I still very much consider it home,” Whitman said.
Bob Asmussen writes three columns a week for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.