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Josh Whitman Introduced As U Of I Athletic Director

Barbara Wilson and Josh Witman

Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson introduces new U of I Athletic Director Josh Whitman in a Thursday morning press conference. Rob McColley/Illinois Public Media

After more than 100 days without an athletic director, the University of Illinois Urbana campus has officially named Josh Whitman to the post.  Whitman is making the jump from NCAA Division III school Washington University in St. Louis, but he says there are more similarities than differences between the two levels.

"At the core of what we do is our students.  That will always be true," Whitman says.  "At a place like Washington University, we're able to recruit across the country, the same as we do at Illinois.  We're able to compete for conference and national championships.  I travel all over the country and meet with an incredibly affluent and successful group of alumni and donors.  So, there are a lot of similarities."

The 37-year-old Whitman was a four-year starter on the Illinois football team in the late 1990s and holds degrees in finance and law from the U of I. 

Whitman says his first official day on the job at Illinois will be March 21.  He replaces Mike Thomas, who was fired by the university in November after a series of incidents in the football and women’s basketball programs.

Whitman talks with reporters after Thursday's press conference.

Photo Credit:  Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

Whitman says he'll draw on his experience as athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse in trying to restore confidence in an athletic department that's been in turmoil.

"An approach that we took up there that I think will work here is that you want to show people incremental progress," he says.  "You want to be able to say 'we're going to do something,' and then you do it.  Over time the wheel starts to turn, and you start to pick up momentum.  Then people understand that this is going to get better."

Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson says that Whitman has a five-year contract that will pay him $600,000 per year, plus incentives for both academic and athletic performance.

Wilson says she knew during their first interview that Whitman should be the new AD.

"Josh is really the full package," she said.  "To add to all of that, it's great to have an Illini.  That wasn't a criterion from the beginning, but it was what I could call icing on the cake.  If we could get all of the things we needed, plus someone who loved Illinois, that would be the best of all possible worlds."

Whitman says he recognizes the challenges of the job, but he says he has a clear vision and plans to win.

The new AD says he’s always looking for ways to serve as a better leader.  He says it takes a special person to develop relationships, and explain things in a constructive way.

So that at the end of that meeting, the person that you’re talking to feels good about what you just told them," he said.  "They understand that this about us getting better, it’s not about someone trying to beat someone down, and say ‘you did this bad.’  It’s about how can we do this better, so that we all are better going forward?”

Whitman says he understands that the job of athletic director includes not shying away from difficult conversations.  He says his law degree and experience in that profession (with a Washington D.C. law firm and as a judicial law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit) started partly because other athletic directors used the same path to get there.

"This was back in 2003, 2004 - you were seeing a lot of lawyers get into these positions," he said.  "The AD at Purdue is an attorney, the AD at Notre Dame, Indiana, USC - all those folks were hiring lawyers at that time.  I thought geez - this might be kind of the wave of the future, and I better be prepared for that."

Whitman wrote a paper for the University of Illinois Law Review on government regulation of steroids in professional sports, and discussed the topic in 2008 on Illinois Public Media's Afternoon Magazine.

Whitman's profile picture with the Illini football team in the 2000 Illinois Orange and Blue Book.

Photo Credit:  Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

A member of the search committee that recommended Whitman says he comes across as the smartest guy in the room, but also a thoughtful listener who doesn't monopolize a gathering.

6th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Dan Flannell says the search committee saw other strong candidates as well, but that Whitman stood out.

Flannell says Whitman has the vision that the U of I needs to revive its athletic program.

“I mean the one vision that he stated over and over, as others did, was - we need to win the right way," he said.  "You don’t win long term by taking short term shortcuts. You have to rebuild the foundation and do it with integrity, first and foremost, and to recognize that these athletes are students first.”

One way of getting comfortable on his return to campus - early Thursday morning before his press conference, Whitman decided to go for a jog around the U of I campus, including a visit to the alma mater statue.  He generally jogs four to six miles every couple of days.