University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman speaks during his annual media roundtable at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building in Champaign on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette ° Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman speaks during his annual media roundtable at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building in Champaign on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

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CHAMPAIGN — Four years ago, Josh Whitman came back to fix his alma mater’s athletic program. Plenty of problems existed: inadequate facilities, mediocrity (or worse) in the big-money sports, apathy from the fan base.

While there is still room to grow, Whitman clearly has the Illini pointed in the right direction.

The school rewarded him Thursday with a contract extension (he is locked in through at least 2024) and a raise to $750,000. His salary goes up $25,000 each year to $850,000 in 2023-24.

I’m guessing the school didn’t need to bump his pay to keep Whitman working hard. That’s who he has always been, going back to growing up close to the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Ind.

From the time he joined Ron Turner’s Illinois football team in 1997, Whitman has been all-in at Illinois. He played as a freshman tight end because the team needed him. Not redshirting cost Whitman a chance to be part of the 2001 Big Ten championship team. But he had a major impact on that group while pursuing his NFL dream.

Whitman returned to Illinois, first for law school and later to work for then-athletic director Ron Guenther.

He went to Washington, D.C., to practice law, but soon returned to sports. First as athletic director at Wisconsin-La Crosse and next at Washington University in St. Louis.

Welcome back

When Mike Thomas was fired in November 2015, Illinois made an unconventional choice for its next sports leader. Not a lot of 37-year-old ADs in the Power 5.

Whitman had a plan for Illinois football and didn’t hesitate to put it into play. He fired Bill Cubit on his first official day on the job. About a second later, Super Bowl coach Lovie Smith was on his way from Tampa, Fla.

Bluntly, the first three seasons were a struggle. Smith, who hadn’t been in college for 21 seasons, started 9-27 overall and just 4-23 in the Big Ten.

Offseason stories had Smith on the hottest seat, expecting him to be among the first this year to be shown the door.

To his credit now, Whitman never flinched. While Rutgers, Arkansas and Florida State fired their coaches — all hired at the same time as Smith or later — during the 2019 season, Whitman supported his coach.

It paid off. With a monster win against then-No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 19. With a comeback for the ages at Michigan State last Saturday.

The team is going to a bowl for the first since 2014. Whitman will be there, hanging out with the team and reminding boosters even better days are ahead.

Four years for Whitman is just a start. Guenther, his mentor, spent 19 in the big chair. Not the longest tenured AD in school history (that would be George Huff) but in the ballpark.

Full plate

If he wants, Whitman will approach Guenther’s longevity. It’s his job to keep.

Whitman, his wife Hope and two young kids realize the ease of life in C-U. Affordable, accessible and friendly is hard to beat. Having his parents 90 minutes away in Indiana is another plus.

Four years will soon become 10 and then possibly 20. He will have a chance to build a legacy like the great Huff (nice to have a building named in your honor) and Guenther.

Whitman has plenty to be proud of already. The Smith Center, Demirjian Park, starting the Illini Hall of Fame, pending renovations to the Ubben Basketball Complex, the way-cool Butkus statue (have you noticed how good the football team has played since that went up?).

There is more for Whitman to accomplish. Like adding hockey and the new downtown Champaign arena (knock on wood) that will enhance volleyball, wresting and gymnastics. Like a new baseball park to put the school on par with the rest of the conference. Like the East and South ends of Memorial Stadium, which need an extreme makeover to match the rest of the beautiful building.

Time to get to work.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmusen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).