CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman has a job hardly anyone in town can relate to.
More than five years into his role as the Illinois athletic director, the 43-year-old Whitman deftly moved among the crowd at the Esquire in downtown Champaign once his appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk,’ ended earlier this week.
He saw some familiar faces and long-time season-ticket holders to Illini sporting events. Those who have enjoyed watching Illinois well before Whitman first arrived on the UI campus to begin his college football career with the Illini in 1997.
He then made his way to his family, with his wife, Hope, and their two young children, 5-year-old daughter Tate and 3-year-old son Will, in attendance. Fatherhood has changed Whitman’s perspective on his job, with the former Illinois tight end having to compose himself when I asked him about being a father two years ago during his last solo appearance at the Esquire for our weekly radio show.
No tears ensued Monday evening. But a lot has changed in the last two years since Whitman last stopped by the Esquire in September 2019. Here’s an update on a variety of issues related to the Illini and college athletics Whitman addressed on Monday:
On Illinois football
Bret Bielema is still undefeated in Big Ten play as the Illini coach. But he won’t finish his first season in Champaign with a winning nonconference record after two straight losses to Texas San Antonio and Virginia. The chance for Illinois (1-2) to end its two-game losing skid happens at 8 p.m. on Friday when Maryland (2-0) and its potent offense visits Memorial Stadium.
“A couple struggles here the last few weeks, but still excited about this team and what we can accomplish,” Whitman said. “The term we’ve used since the day we introduced Coach Bielema is sustained success. We’re going to build this the right way. I’m not writing off this season by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve played two good teams these last two weeks. I think when the season has been written, we’ll look back at this year and see that both UTSA and Virginia have had really good seasons.”
Injuries to skill position players like quarterback Brandon Peters, running backs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein and others haven’t helped in Whitman’s mind. But he would like to see Illinois play well earlier in games, with teams outscoring the Illini 21-2 in the first quarter.
“We all recognize we need to come out of the box stronger,” Whitman said. “We need to play cleaner games than we have. I’m very optimistic we’ll be able to do that.
“That’s the great thing about college sports. We don’t get the luxury to sit back and say, ‘Woe is me,’ for very long. We’ve got a really good Maryland team coming in here Friday night.”
On possible Memorial Stadium upgrades
Within Whitman’s first full year as the Illinois athletic director, he unveiled ambitious plans in the fall of 2016 to renovate the east side and south side, known as the horseshoe, of Memorial Stadium. Those plans eventually shifted and morphed into the $80 million standalone Smith Center that sits on the east side of the stadium.
Whitman said he hasn’t ditched plans to upgrade the east side and the horseshoe at some point in the future, especially after the west side and north end zone received massive upgrades prior to the start of the 2008 season.
“It’s very much a front of mind topic for us, both the east and the south,” Whitman said. “We’re very grateful to our fans that spend their time in the east and the south, and we know we need to improve that experience, as well. It is, as you imagine, a very expensive undertaking. Nothing is inexpensive anymore. Starting to have some conversations about the best way to approach that project.”
Whitman envisioned a time, pre-pandemic, where all those upgrades would be complete ahead of the 2023 season to honor the 100-year anniversary of Memorial Stadium.
“I still have that idea in the back of my mind, but with each month that passes, the idea that comes to fruition, it gets a little bit smaller,” Whitman said, “but it’s a project that’s very much on our minds and something we’re talking about routinely at this point.”
Before the pandemic, any time Whitman had a microphone in his hands or met with a group of reporters, the topic of Illinois potentially adding hockey came up. More than four years after the first feasibility study was conducted, in conjunction with the NHL — that said yes, Illinois hockey would be a popular sport in C-U — the topic is once again getting discussed, although Whitman didn’t provide many specific details when asked about it Monday.
“We have restarted some of those conversations. This was an idea that obviously was very much front of mind for us for a number of years. When the pandemic hit, that conversation moved very quickly to the back burner when we left it until just recently when we re-opened some of those discussions with all of the different stakeholders,” Whitman said. “We just want to get a sense of the room in how their worlds have changed as our world has changed, and is there still an appetite to undertake this project? That’s an ongoing conversation now.”
Whitman didn’t offer a timeline on when any decisions about the future of hockey at Illinois would take place.
“It was a pretty complex conversation before,” he said. “I would say it certainly hasn’t gotten any simpler in light of the pandemic.”
On other facility upgrades
The southern part of the UI campus has changed dramatically since Whitman landed this job in February 2016. Because of all the construction work that has taken place, with the Smith Center and Demirjian Park two of the newest athletic facilities for the Illini.
But work is ongoing for practice facilities for four sports: the Ubben Basketball Complex, the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center and the Rex and Alice A. Martin Softball Training Center. Not to mention ongoing renovations at the Atkins Golf Club in southeast Urbana.
Whitman said the anticipated finish for Ubben is late 2022, with the first pieces of steel going up on that multi-million dollar project late last week.
Even with all the facility upgrades that have happened during the Whitman era, the question is always there: What’s next?
“If we’re not thinking about what’s next,” Whitman said, “then I’m not doing my job.”
Memorial Stadium upgrades seem clearly on Whitman’s agenda, along with sorting out the possibility of a downtown arena that was floated about to host Illinois hockey games, along with moving Illinois volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics to the new multi-purpose arena and away from Huff Hall.
“Huff Hall is a building that needs some attention,” Whitman said. “What is the future of Huff? I think that’s an important question. We’ve seen parking diminish over the years as the university, to its credit, has continued to build, as well. Parking will continue to become a premium for volleyball and the other events that are held in Huff. We need to have some hard conversations about what that future is. That’s all part of the discussion process right now.”
On Friday night football games and crowds
The game against Maryland marks the third home Friday night game for Illinois in the last five seasons. Illinois lost the previous two, falling 63-24 against Penn State in 2018 and 28-6 against Nebraska in 2017.
“Our approach has always been, certainly for a program like ours that’s trying to build its reputation both locally but also nationally, any chance we get to sort of step ourselves out from the masses on Saturday when we’re competing with lots and lots of other games for attention, we’ll take it,” Whitman said. “It’s not something we want to do every week. We certainly recognize the Friday night (high school) football tradition locally, and we don’t want to detract from that, but if we can do it once in a while, once a season, where we can step out and give ourselves that spotlight to go get a great win against a good Maryland team, I think that’s something we’d be silly if we didn’t try to take advantage of.”
The Illinois athletic department is offering free student tickets for Friday night’s game, with the north end zone routinely full for the first two home games. Average attendance for the last two Big Ten home games on Friday night, obviously happening before a global pandemic took hold, was 38,8881 at the 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium. The Illini have announced an average attendance of 37,485 for their first two home games this season as people are still getting comfortable again with the idea of attending sporting events amid a pandemic.
Whitman said he anticipates having a full student section against Maryland in the north end zone and expects some to actually take up spots on the east side of the stadium for Friday night.
“If we can get them in there as we did against Nebraska and give them a great memory,” Whitman said, “then that’s something they’ll want to see repeated and hopefully they’ll start to come back.”
On Hall of Fame weekend
One upcoming weekend event that is flying a bit under the radar is Saturday’s Illinois athletics Hall of Fame ceremony. The Class of 2020, the fourth class to be inducted, will be honored at 1 p.m. on Saturday in a free ceremony at State Farm Center. The 15-person class was announced in April 2020, but did not have a public event to recognize them last year because of the pandemic.
Among the former Illini expected to be in attendance on Saturday: 1995 Butkus Award winner Kevin Hardy, recent Olympic gold medalist in volleyball Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and former Olympic thrower and Centennial graduate Gia Lewis-Smallwood.
“We don’t have as many back as we hoped for, because for a variety of different reasons, but we should have between six to eight coming back,” Whitman said. “I would encourage everybody to come out. It’s a really nice event and something we really look forward to.”