Like it or not, right or wrong, Power Five athletic directors are judged mostly by the performance of their football programs.
Why? Well, quite frankly, money.
Football drives the financial bus for the rest of the athletic program.
Always has. Always will.
At most schools, football is the most important sport. Of course, there are exceptions. Kansas comes to mind. Duke, too.
But if football is running well — both on the field and at the gate — the AD should have a smile on his or her face.
Josh Whitman is entering his sixth football season as Illinois’ athletic director with his second head coach.
The first hire didn’t go well.
Lovie Smith had five losing seasons and earned one bowl bid.
During Smith’s Illini tenure, the program was unable to recruit the top players in the state, and the national recruiting rankings plummeted.
Yearly attendance continued a downward trend. Starting in Smith’s second season, average attendance dipped below 40,000 for the first time since 1998. That team, coached by Ron Turner, was coming off an 0-11 finish. Attendance rebounded in 1999 to 45,291.
Smith’s Illinois teams didn’t draw more than 40,000 in years two, three and four.
Of course, there is no attendance figure from Smith’s final season. Because of COVID-19, general seating wasn’t allowed.
Late in the 2020 season, with Illinois football floundering, Whitman fired Smith. A difficult and easy decision. The team simply didn’t win enough. More to the point, the trajectory wasn’t pointing up.
Fair to say, Whitman made the wrong choice when he hired Smith. He thought that all of Smith’s NFL experience would translate to college football, especially at Illinois, where he was a known quantity as a former Chicago Bears coach.
It was a risky choice for Whitman. One that didn’t work out. Commend the attempt. And point out that Smith did the program a lot of good off the field. His players got involved in the community and set good examples.
If the team won more games, Smith would still be here. Maybe for many years to come.
When it came time to hire his second head coach, Whitman went with a college guy. Though, interestingly, he brought him from the NFL’s New York Giants.
Unlike Smith, Bret Bielema built his reputation as a college head coach, first at Wisconsin and next at Arkansas.
His teams went to bowls and played for championships. He led his teams to the postseason 10 of 12 years, including all seven at Wisconsin. The Badgers earned three Rose Bowl bids during his time in Madison.
At first glance, and after seven months in charge, Bielema looks like a guy capable of turning program into a consistent winner.
If Illinois becomes Wisconsin South, that will be better than fine with the fans. Ten years since the last winning season has pushed the limits of their patience.
What to watch for
For the first time since 2019, Whitman’s football coach isn’t on the hot seat.
There is no pressure on Bielema to “win now.” He’s got a long-term deal and plenty of time.
Of course, getting off to a fast start, while not necessary, would be big for the program. It would help with recruiting. And it would put more people in the seats at Memorial Stadium. Fans will be in the stands on Aug. 28 for the first time since Nov. 30, 2019. That’s a long, lonely stretch for the 98-year-old building.
How soon will Illinois fans be willing to come back en masse? There hasn’t been a sellout since early in the 1996 season.
The early schedule — including the critical opener against Nebraska — gives Illinois a chance to open the season with a bang. The AD will be crossing his fingers.
Whitman has put Illinois football in position for immediate and long-term success. When he took over, the program lagged far behind the rest of the Big Ten in terms of facilities, which had a direct impact on recruiting and on-field success.
The Smith Center fixed the problem. Credit goes to Whitman for making it a priority and getting it done. He saw the need and addressed it sooner than most expected.
There is no must-have for football other than some wins.
There are long-term Memorial Stadium issues Whitman will have to deal with, including renovations of the south and east ends. COVID-19 put those talks (and hockey, for that matter) on hold.
Whitman is catching up to his peers when it comes to conference administrative experience. When Big Ten ADs get together, he isn’t the newest guy in the room. Not even close. Nebraska just hired Trev Alberts, although he had a long Division I run at Omaha.
The Big Ten ADs seem like a friendly bunch. But you wouldn’t blame them for messing with the newer hires. That is no longer Whitman. Year by year, he moves up the seniority list, though he has a long way to go before he catches mentor Ron Guenther.
Guenther had some football success as AD, including the 2001 Big Ten championship team. But the program never won consistently, following a good year with a bad one.
Like Whitman, he hired two football coaches. Turner lasted eight years and Ron Zook went seven before Guenther’s replacement, Mike Thomas, fired Zook.
When it comes to being AD at Illinois, football has usually been a heavy lift. More disappointment than triumph.
The next chapter is only starting for Whitman. His job now is to offer support and guidance. And hope for the best.