Werner: All aboard the Whitman train

In introductory press conference, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman strikes all the right chords in articulating a vision. He's a leader. Now, it's time for Illini supporters to follow him.

New Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman should have dropped the mic Thursday after his introductory press conference.

It's official. University of Illinois athletics has an intelligent, driven, passionate, natural leader with a vision.

The 37-year-old former Division III athletics director perfectly articulated that vision at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building, the hub of operations for the department he will lead officially starting March 21.

Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson, who with the advice of a search committee and search firm selected Whitman as the 14th permanent Illinois director of athletics, joked that Whitman "walks on water." While Whitman said he is "not the savior of Illinois athletics," he provided Illinois fans with an important, recently lacking emotion on Thursday: hope.

What Whitman lacks in Division I experience, he makes up for in intelligence, people skills, leadership, confidence and his ability to articulate all his goals -- all on display in his introductory press conference.

"We will win," Whitman said. "It's important. That's what everyone's thirsty for. We don't get in this to finish second place. That's not our purpose."

The battle cry was formed. The "We Will Win" T-shirts already are in production. Really. The attempt to change the culture of losing, the culture of embarrassment has begun.

Whitman, who is in the final steps of negotiating a five-year contract that will play him $600,000 annually, also proved his love for Illinois. The West Lafayette, Ind., native WANTS TO BE HERE. This is not a stepping stone. This is his final destination, he hopes.

"Ever since I was a freshman/sophomore in college, this is what I wanted to do," Whitman said. "Everything I've done since then ... has been with an eye toward preparing myself for this moment.

"This is a dream for me. This is an opportunity for me to take the last job I hope I ever have."

Whether by luck or skill, the Illini may have caught a rising star.

Now, it’s up to you, Illini backers, to get on board the Whitman train and help this program chug forward. Because it's a long haul ahead, and the start of the treacherous trip cannot be delayed by stragglers.

"We need everybody," Whitman said. "This is a movement. We need a coalition of people. The bigger that coalition becomes, the bigger Illini nation becomes, the more passionate we become, the better we can be. This is not about Josh Whitman. This is not about Barbara Wilson. We are just parts of what we hope becomes a very successful puzzle. But in order for us to realize that, we need every Illini everywhere to get involved. We need them to support us. We want to bring renewed optimism hope and energy to our fan base."

He's talking to you, administration. You put Whitman in charge. Let him lead. Give him the full surgical kit, not just a surface-level band-aid, to fix the gaping wound in Illinois athletics. Whitman doesn't yet know who his boss will be. Illinois is in the infancy of its search for a full-time chancellor. Whitman on Thursday put his full support behind Wilson, who has publicly said she is not interested in the job. Regardless, UI president Tim Killeen must hire someone who will fully support and empower Whitman.

"Everybody wants to know who their boss is going to be," Whitman said. "Everybody wants to know there is going to be stability and support. I got into this process very curious to see how I'd feel, and after meeting with Barb ... we addressed that issue in particular. She was very, very supportive and understanding. She assured me the university is committed to this athletic program, is committed to us building the kind of teams that we all want to see."

He's talking to you, faculty. I know these are tough times at the university level given the state’s self-inflicted budget woes. I know you see the eight-figure television revenue coming in to the athletics department and think it’s unfair that something as trivial as athletics would receive those funds while something as important as education goes vastly underfunded. But tell those student-athletes who work tirelessly for those scholarships that it’s unfair. Their hard work and the hard work of hundreds of DIA staffers brings in that revenue. The eyeballs those athletes, coaches, etc. bring to televisions also give your great university the best possible exposure. Wilson, like many administrators across the country, has said, “Athletics is the front porch of the university.” Whitman also prioritizes academics, just like you. His name is on the Bronze Tablet, meaning he finished among the top-three percent of his graduating class. He graduated from the UI College of Law. Illinois is a great university. It is better when Illinois has great athletics. They should each help each other, not work against each other.

"We want to change the lives of our student-athletes," Whitman said. "We want to put their needs first and foremost. Everything we do, every decision we make will be informed by what is the best interest of our students. The reason we're here is them. We're here to teach them. We're here to grow them. We're here to prepare them for their lives after they leave campus."

He's talking to you, board of trustees. You sit in your position to make the university system better, I hope. I know you’ve been upset about the recent state of affairs in the university and athletics department. Set aside the political agendas for Whitman, though. He’ll undoubtedly undergo a coaching search in the future (how soon, we'll see). Stop with the leaks that disrupt those processes. Stop with the pre-emptive strikes calling for a diversity hire. Whitman is a highly intelligent man who is well respected by seemingly anyone he’s met. He seems a fair man. Give him a chance.

"If we're not able to all pull the rope in the same direction, we're not getting the job done that we all want so badly to be done," Whitman said. "It's critical that we all get in line, that we all understand the vision that's in front of us and that we all start to row the boat. Because we want to get there."

He's talking to you, DIA employees. These are stressful times, no doubt. I can’t imagine the uncertainty you’ve worked through and will work through with a new boss coming to town. Many of you are accustomed to things being run a certain, comfortable way. Well, it’s not working. And I know you're sick of losing. You have a new leader. Follow him. Change is tough. But for Illinois, change is necessary.

"I know it's easy sometimes to cast aspersions," Whitman said. "It's easy to get down. We have to fight. We have to fight that. Because the opportunity is in front of us. We have unbelievable potential here. Unbelievable, untapped potential.

He's talking to you, donors. No, Rick George didn’t jump on board. Neither did Craig Tiley. Both would have been great hires. Frankly, Illinois would have been lucky if either left their great jobs, George as Colorado AD and Tiley as CEO of Tennis Australia. But Whitman could be a great hire too. I’m not telling you how to spend your money. But just listen to him when he comes calling -- and he will, soon. Illinois needs vast facilities upgrades, starting with a new football facility on the south side of Memorial Stadium, a new basketball practice facility attached to State Farm Center, a renovated baseball stadium and Olympic sport upgrades. Without these, Illinois will continue to lag in the Big Ten.

"You want to show people incremental progress," Whitman said. "You want to be able to say 'we're gonna do something', and then you do it. Over time, the wheel starts to turn. Eventually, you start to pick up momentum. People start to believe. People start to understand that this is going to get better.

"It is going to take some time to get to the place that we want it to be. But that doesn't mean it's going to take a long time for us to get started."

He's talking to you, Illinois fans. It’s time to get out of that “woe is me” funk. I know, it’s been a terrible five years under Mike Thomas. It’s been a decade of decline. But it’s time to start "the climb” as Whitman said. It won’t be quick. It won’t be easy. Whitman needs patience. But he also needs buy in from you. He soon will make some big decisions. Maybe he’ll make a decision not to make a program-changing decision (think men's basketball). He's never made Big Ten decisions. There will be a day to second-guess those decisions. Today, he needs your faith. He is an Illinois grad. This is his destination job. He's making decisions to better Illinois, not his resumé. He wants what you want, and he probably wants it more.

"We want people to take great pride in the Orange and Blue," Whitman said. "We will do everything we can to generate that. I look forward to getting around the state, getting around the country, shaking a lot of hands, talking to a lot of people, listening to what people's concerns are and developing a program that we can all be proud of.

After Thursday's much-needed Illini pump-up speech, more Illini fans should leap on board. The Whitman train may take a while to get going, but it's off to a rousing start. Still, it'll take more than just the conductor to propel it down the tracks.

"If we unify, if we unite ourselves, we can be the best," Whitman said. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here."


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