USA Today // Steve Mitchell

Ron Turner: Whitman 'going to be successful'

Head coach Ron Turner recruited Josh Whitman to Illinois. Nineteen years later, Whitman -- a former Illini tight end -- is the leader of the Illinois athletic department. Turner, now the head coach at Florida International, talked with Illini Inquirer on Wednesday, the same day Whitman was officially announced the 14th permanent Illinois director of athletics.

Josh Whitman, Illinois athletics director. How's that sound to you?

Ron Turner: "I think it sounds great. I've kept in Josh throughout the years. I knew at some point, he would be the athletic director at Illinois. I've said that for many years. I didn't know necessarily that it would be at age 37. But he's ready for it, and I couldn't be more happy for him. I'm excited for him. I've talked to a lot of guys that played with him and stay in touch with and I know they're all excited for him too."

You were coaching him 15 years ago. Did you think he could rise this fast?

Turner: "I'm not surprised at all. He's always been more mature than what his age was. Hard worker. Very, very intelligent. And a driven individual, driven to be successful. I'm not surprised at all. Again, I don't know if you expect it at age 37, but I'm not surprised at all that he's sitting in that seat, and I know he's going to do a great job."

That age, 37, when he's involved in a world of boosters and coaches who are older, sometimes that matters. What challenges does he have to overcome with that age and not having as much experience as a lot of people who get that job?

Turner: "Well, I think just the perception, the perception that he is too young. But I think once they get around him, once they see him and visit with him and find out how smart he is and how personable he is and the vision he has and the plan that he has. That's the big thing he has to do. He has to sit down and get that plan and get that vision in order and communicate it, which he'll do. He's got great people skills. It won't take people long at all once they get in a room with him and get around him to understand why he's been so successful and why he's going to be successful."

You recruited him. What did you see in him then?

Turner: "We recruited him out of West Lafayette. Tim Kish was the assistant who recruited that area, and he identified him. We watched him as a staff and liked what we saw on film. Once we got to know him and sat down with him and saw his maturity and his focus and how driven he was, we knew he was a guy who would come in and do well. And he did. He did on the field, off the field and had a very good career. He's just driven to be successful. He probably made himself a better player than he should've been and that allowed him to go on and play in the NFL for a couple years and have a very good career."

What about his personality can make him an effective leader of a Big Ten program?

Turner: "The biggest way he led as a player, and it's cliché to say but, he led by example. Our guys knew that he was going to be one of the hardest workers that we had on the field and off the field. He took care of business in everything he did. But he wasn't afraid to be a vocal leader too. He was a very emotional guy, a very determined guy and very serious. He wasn't afraid to be vocal when he needed to be. I just think he'll do a great job of bringing everyone together."

We know Illinois after all these years is not an easy job. What do you think are his biggest challenges?

Turner: "I think the biggest thing is to change the perception and just to get everyone on board, to get all the former players lined up with him and supporting him, which he will do immediately. They will be so excited they will do that. Then just to get out in the community and get the faculty and the administration and get the boosters and get the fans and get up to Chicago and St. Louis and all the different areas and just spread his vision and what he wants to do with the program. I think his passion for the Illini will come out, and people will be able to see that and want to rally behind them. Just kind of uniting everybody, I think that's the biggest thing. Get everyone feeling good and feeling positive about the direction of the athletic program right now."

You're focused on you right now, but what would your advice be to the Illini football coach Bill Cubit?

Turner: "Well, I know Bill. Bill's a great guy. He's a very good coach, and I think he's doing a tremendous job there. I'd just say embrace Josh and get a good relationship with him and Josh will be there to support you. Enjoy it. You got someone that has a passion for Illinois. Go with that and utilize that. Utilize him in recruiting because the guy is very genuine. He'll help in every way he can. I know he wants that program to be successful and he'll do whatever he can to help Bill and the other coaches."

We hear all about Josh's intelligence. Was he always the smartest guy in the room? Did he show you up at all with that?

Turner: "I think he was always the smartest guy in the room. I know when he walked in the room with me he was (laughs). There's no question about that. I remember one time I had to call him into my office. I sent word down to Josh for him to come see me. He came up and looked scared to death. He never wanted to make a mistake or do anything wrong. He said, 'Coach, what did I do?' I said, 'Josh, I'm a little bit disappointed in you.' He's like, 'What for? What for? What did I do?' I'm like, 'Josh, I just got the grades in. You got a B.' He put his down (disappointed) and just said, 'I know.' I can remember it like it was yesterday. I said, 'Josh, what happened?' He said, 'I don't know. I don't know.' And it wasn't even one of his most difficult classes. It wasn't his major I don't think so he probably didn't put as much time into it. He said, 'Coach, I won't do it again.' He had a lot of pride. He thought I was serious. I obviously was not. But he put his head down like he let me down. I don't know how many B's he got, but it wasn't a whole lot more."

How much does that matter that he is that smart? How much does that matter as an athletic director?

Turner: 'I think, yeah, the more intelligent you are the better chance you have -- as long as you have the other things. I know some people who are really intelligent, but they aren't great leaders because they don't have great people skills and they don't necessarily have common sense. I think Josh has both. He's got good people skills, and he does have common sense and he has the intelligence to go along with it. That combination is what has enabled him to rise so quickly and why he'll have success at Illinois, in my opinion."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories