Matthew Wheeler heard the criticism from Illinois fans.
But in the end, the animal sciences professor and chairman of the university’s search committee to find a new athletic director felt the Illini got what they needed in Josh Whitman.
“It took some time, and people have criticized that,” Wheeler said Thursday after Whitman’s introduction as the Illini’s 14th permanent athletics director. “Why did it take so long? We were thorough. We had some great candidates to look into. We had a lot of homework to do. We had a lot of difficult decisions to make and it took some time. The chancellor told me, ‘Find the best person you possibly could find and take the time that you need.’ And that’s what we did.”
Whitman, a 37-year-old former Illinois football player who spent the last two years at Division III Washington University in St. Louis, was one of two finalists Wheeler’s committee suggested to interim chancellor Barbara Wilson, UI president Tim Killeen and the university board of trustees. The other reportedly was Florida Atlantic AD Patrick Chun.
Wheeler said the committee combed through several quality candidates and had healthy debate about who stood out most.
“Certainly when you do something like this with different folks and different points of view, folks look for different things,” Wheeler said. “I’m a professor. I was looking at academics and student-athlete welfare. Howard Milton was looking at fund-raising capabilities. Certainly, there were other facets. Ideally, in the perfect world, you can take the best attributes of all of them, mix them together and really have somebody who does walk on water. But we got pretty close. I think it’s exciting.
But Whitman was an easy choice, Wheeler said.
“You can read about anybody, but when you talk to them and see the rest of the package, it was a clear decision,” Wheeler said.
“Just his passion, his integrity, his intelligence, his willingness to work hard everyday. His willingness to show up and strap his boots on. This is a blue-collar campus. That’s what Josh brings back is that work ethic and for us all to pull together and be a team. We need every Illini to get positive, to get behind this because we’re going places.”