CHAMPAIGN - Illinois athletics has been a rudderless ship for far too long.
The former captain, Mike Thomas, started losing a lot of support externally and internally midway through the 2014 football season (the Illini were 1-18 in Big Ten play at that point under his hire, Tim Beckman). If he weren't fired in November -- following a year of embarrassments on the field of play and off of it (investigations into multiple sports for abuse, racism and other claims) -- a mutiny seemed likely.
After a tenuous three-month search, Illinois finally has a new vision, a new leader.
But is 37-year-old Division III athletics director Josh Whitman the person to put Illinois back on course?
Whitman, an Illini football player from 1997-2000, will attempt to calm the troubled waters at his alma mater. The seas haven't been this choppy at Illinois since 1967 when the Slush Fund ended the tenures of the three most prominent Illini coaches (Pete Elliot, Harry Combes and Howard Braun) due to disbursement of illegal funds to players.
Whitman, an uber-intelligent UI College of Law graduate, has earned labels such as "rising star" and "wunderkind." He has all the tools you look for in a five-star prospect. But he's only played the game for a few years.
While many will question whether Division III to Big Ten is too big of a leap for a program in such disarray, those who know Whitman think he is plenty capable of the challenges. Let's hope so, because he faces plenty of them.
Fixing Thomas' whiffs
Illinois football has finished above .500 in conference play just twice in the 15 seasons since Whitman's college football career ended. The Illini are 8-32 in the Big Ten the last five years. Beckman embarrassed the program with his record and bumbling persona in front of cameras. But worst of all, he brought true shame to the program with an abuse scandal that cost him his job in August. Interim coach Bill Cubit was left to pick up the pieces and keep the program from sinking to the bottom of the Big Ten ocean -- thanks, Purdue! -- and has done an admirable job. While Cubit has kept the program afloat, it still is lost at sea. The fan base isn't sold on a 62-year-old coach who was dismissed from Western Michigan in 2012 -- and apparently neither is the administration, which in November gave Cubit just a two-year extension.
Illinois basketball has slipped further from the NCAA Tournament in each of John Groce's four seasons at Illinois and is likely headed for its third straight season without breaking out the dancing shoes, the first time that's happened since 1980.
And while most Illini fans don't invest much in women's basketball, fourth-year head coach Matt Bollant -- who looked like the slam dunk of Thomas' three hires -- is 18-51 in Big Ten play. Bollant survived a scandal scandal of his own, last year's allegations of racism and abuse marred his program, but his program only seems adrift.
So, Whitman must clean up Thomas' three hires (it's amazing that a guy who hired Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and Mick Cronin at Cincinnati had such struggles at Illinois, isn't it?). A football decision seems likely following the 2016 season, unless Cubit finds a way to overcome the huge challenges of a two-year deal and a roster with big holes. A men's basketball decision seems unlikely, though Whitman may feel differently. The greatest case for a change of direction may be on women's basketball, but that sport carries the least public pressure.
Basketball attendance continues to decline. Three of the new suites in the renovated State Farm Center are unsold, while many of the premium loge seats remain empty. The Orange Krush student section rarely is full. Football attendance actually stopped its five-year decline, but Illinois' average of 42,647 still ranked 11th of 14 Big Ten teams (ahead of Northwester, Purdue and Maryland).
The Illini fan base is strong -- attendance probably should be worse -- but it is increasingly apathetic. The empty seats tell the athletics department their product stinks.
Whitman's biggest and most important job is to turn that tide by employing successful coaches. While television revenue buoys Illinois' budget, attendance still makes up a large chunk of Illinois revenue. And in 2015, the Illini finished in the red for the first time in more than a decade.
Illinois needs money to compete in the Big Ten (and sometimes for the best coaches). It needs good coaches to win and make money. Whitman has to solve that equation.
Will Illini fans have patience? That's tough to ask out of fatigued donors and fans who have watched the programs decline slowly (all the way to the bottom of the Big Ten) since the mid-2000s.
Men's basketball could be a quick fix. Groce has a talented roster returning next season. A few more pieces, a few fewer injuries or a monster 2017 recruiting class could quickly move Illinois back into the top half of the Big Ten.
Football is a long-play. The 2017 and 2018 roster, especially on defense, has huge holes. Whitman must find the right man to lead that huge project, whether it is Cubit or someone else, and give him the patience and time to build a stable foundation.
Some will look at Whitman as a "White Knight." Many are hoping for a young savior. Fans are itching for a press conference to inspire confidence in a program that has deserved little over most of the past decade.
That may be unfair to Whitman, but his Thursday introductory press conference will set the tone for many involved with Illinois athletics, including fans and donors.
He should do well there. He's almost always the smartest man in the room, and usually the biggest and strongest (he still looks like he can play in the NFL). People gravitate toward him as a natural leader. He blew away Illinois leadership in his interviews. He has the opportunity to win over the public on Thursday.
Illini fans want and need to see intelligence, composure and passion. Whitman may not have all the answers on how to fix the DIA, but he must clearly articulate a vision to how to start the climb back up from near the bottom of the Big Ten totem pole (at least Rutgers is lower).
Internally, there are a lot of nervous DIA staffers, typical when a big change occurs. But there also are a lot of people looking for leadership. Whitman must quickly detect the issues internally and get everyone on the same page (a huge issue under Thomas) and working toward the same goal of lifting Illini athletics into a new, successful era.
Whitman also enters a university in turmoil. While interim chancellor Barbara Wilson technically hired him, Whitman doesn't yet know to whom he will immediately report. Illinois is just starting to prepare for its search for a new chancellor.
Whenever you're dealing with the state of Illinois, politics also are at play. And with the state budget in flux -- and thus, the university budget -- Whitman faces even more uncertainty. There are a lot of powers in play at the unversity: the administration, the faculty, the board of trustees, his inherited DIA staffers, etc. Whitman must be willing to make some of them uncomfortable.
Illinois needs to change. It doesn't need a "yes" man. Whitman must confront the issues and those powers who will try to prevent change. It sounds as if he has that type of personality. The powers at be have tabbed Whitman as the man to lead the push for change, so they must allow him to make the changes he deems necessary.
Illinois athletics has run off course for far too long. It has a new, young, promising captain at the helm.
Can he navigate Illinois through the turbulent waters?
We won't know for a while (four or five years) because Whihtman has a long -- very long -- journey ahead.
But the course he sets in the coming days, weeks and months will play a huge role in if and how soon Illinois fans see a beacon of light on the horizon.