CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois remains on track to add a Division I men's hockey program, with athletic director Josh Whitman saying Tuesday the school has "come close on multiple occasions" to making it official.
During his end-of-year roundtable with the media, Whitman discussed at length the future of college hockey in Champaign-Urbana.
As recently as "a month or six weeks ago, we thought we were going to announce hockey," he said, referring to a fundraising event involving the campus' club group.
"There have been a few things that have popped up at the 11th hour ... where I felt it best to hit the pause button and push things back," Whitman said. "There have been a few key partnerships that we haven't been able to finalize quite yet."
Whitman said he couldn't comment on those specific partnerships. Nor was he ready to set in stone a date when the Illini could officially launch a D-I men's program, instead saying the desired construction of the squad's multipurpose home could be finished by fall 2022.
"Our goal would be to be in the building in time for our first year as a full, competing member of the Big Ten," Whitman said. "Whether there would be a kind of intermediate step before that ... remains to be seen."
That latter point was addressed by Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., during a recent appearance on WDWS's "SportsTalk with Scott Beatty."
Snee noted that Penn State, which joined the conference in 2012, went through an independent club campaign the year prior to its full Big Ten inclusion.
"I would expect we would go through something similar," Whitman said Tuesday, "when and if we're in a position to do that."
Another element that Whitman touched on Tuesday was the possibility for conflict with Title IX regulations — which ensure equal athletic opportunities for male and female athletes — should a men's hockey program come to fruition.
"For the first 18 months — even two years — of this exploration, I think we were operating on the assumption we would either have to add a women's sport or eliminate a men's sport," Whitman said. "Ultimately, we got some outside consultant help and studied the issue more carefully and recognized that's not necessary."
The reason, Whitman said, is that the addition of "25 to 30 new heads" through men's hockey would not significantly skew Illinois' "substantial proportionality."
In a nutshell, Whitman said, that statistic identifies the number of men and women competing in Illini D-I athletics and compares it to the number of men and women taking undergraduate classes at the university.
"We would still be substantially proportionate to the rate at which men and women enroll as undergraduates here (if men's hockey was included)," Whitman said.
A D-I women's venture such as hockey, lacrosse or field hockey could be in Illinois' future plans, but Whitman said he doesn't expect such growth in the short term.
Many of Whitman's hockey-related thoughts centered on a building for the new team.
A longstanding proposal calls for a downtown Champaign structure that comes at a cost Whitman estimated to be in the $100 million range, with Illinois hopeful it would own the building.
That would pair with an estimated $3 million to $3.5 million in men's hockey operating expenses, Whitman said.
But he emphasized that such a facility would serve more than those with sticks and pucks.
"That's really why we got down this path in the first place," Whitman said, "was the opportunity the building would have to provide new homes for volleyball, wrestling, men's gymnastics."
And then there are the non-Illini events he said would be necessary "in order for us to make the building work."
At this time, however, Champaign-Urbana will continue to wait for D-I men's hockey.
Whitman's message: It isn't for a lack of trying.
"We've come close," he said. "But we've got some big questions still to answer before we say, 'Yes, we're going to do this.' And until we get those questions answered, we're not going to do it."