CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman has a way with words.
Whether it’s reciting updates on a variety of athletic facility projects currently in the works on the University of Illinois campus, giving a progress report on hockey — it’s not happening yet — or how he assesses Lovie Smith’s football program, the 41-year-old Illini athletic director has a smooth, polished delivery.
But ask Whitman about his two small children — soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter Tate and 1-year-old son Will — and his wife, Hope, and the words don’t come quite as easy. Especially with Tate and Will a few feet away, clambering to sit on their father’s lap, like they did Monday evening during the end of Whitman’s appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk’ radio show from the Esquire in downtown Champaign.
“It brings a lot of great perspective,” Whitman said, with a slight catch in his voice. “The opportunity to come home after a big win or a tough loss and know that these guys and my wife are going to be there and have a smile on their face no matter what the outcome of the game was, means a lot. It’s pretty great to be able to raise a family around this community, whether that’s the Champaign-Urbana community or the Illini community. For our student-athletes to be role models to them and for them to watch the way they go about their work, the way they chase goals and the way that they overcome adversity, it really is exciting. It’s definitely the highlight of my life.”
Whitman arrived back in C-U late this past Saturday night after spending five days last week during a trip to the east coast that coincided with the Illinois football team delivering a 31-23 win at UConn last Saturday. So far, the fourth-year Illini AD likes what he’s seen from Smith’s fourth Illinois football team.
“I see great progress,” Whitman said. “I’m excited about the growth. We’ve seen a lot of development from this group already. I fully expect it to continue.”
The Illini’s next challenge awaits at 11 a.m. Saturday when Illinois (2-0) hosts Eastern Michigan (1-1) at Memorial Stadium in the final nonconference game of the season. Illinois is striving to start 3-0 for the first time since 2011, also the last time Illinois finished with a winning season.
“The key for us is to continue to focus on getting better and better each week,” Whitman said. “We have a schedule that allows us to see an improved opponent. Certainly, as we head back into Memorial Stadium, it’s an improved Eastern Michigan team, and it’s a great early-season test for us.”
The play of quarterback Brandon Peters — the Michigan graduate transfer is 38 of 58 for 390 passing yards, seven touchdowns and one interception in his first two games at Illinois — has impressed Whitman.
“Offensively, I think we’ve showed a lot of character and a lot of playmakers on the field now,” Whitman said. “I’m really pleased with the way Brandon has come in and distributed the ball, with the poise he’s shown.”
The same sentiment applies to the defense early on, despite allowing 275 passing yards against UConn.
“We gave up a few more yards than we wanted to in the passing game, but to hold a team to 10 rushing yards in a game and to have 12 tackles for a loss, that’s a pretty good defensive performance,” Whitman said. “I think there’s a lot to be excited about.”
Part of the optimism Whitman is espousing stems from the fact Illinois won its first road nonconference game in 12 years with the victory at UConn. A key game for the 1999 Illinois football team that went 8-4, won the MicronPC.com Bowl and saw Whitman catch 20 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns as the Illini’s starting tight end happened with a 41-36 win at Louisville during the third week of that season 20 years ago.
“It comes with experience to be able to walk into somebody else’s house and to be able to perform well in an adverse environment,” Whitman said. “It’s hard to do. It shows maturity. It shows confidence, and you’ve got to get that proverbial monkey off your back. For us to be able to go into Connecticut and get that win was hopefully a big moment for those guys. We know as we hit the road in the Big Ten, the games aren’t going to get any easier, the crowds aren’t going to get any smaller and the stakes aren’t going to get any lower. We’ve got to continue to build on that. I think we can.”