Illinois athletics likely will never be Ohio State or Michigan, the most prestigious and top-earning athletics programs in the Big Ten.
New Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said if it's up to him, Illinois never will be Ohio State or Michigan -- in a certain manner of speaking.
“I certainly would never sit here and aspire to be Ohio State,” Whitman said last week after his introductory press conference. “I would never aspire to be Michigan. We’re going to be the University of Illinois and we’re going to do it differently than other people do it.”
What Whitman does aspire to is the success and pride of Ohio State and Michigan.
“I told the search committee that I feel like over the last few years, one of the challenges has been in some ways that we’ve lost our identity,’ Whitman said. “We need to re-establish that. We need to establish what our identity is and celebrate who we are and not strive to be somebody else.”
What is that identity for which Whitman strives?
“A student-centered, prideful, successful organization," Whitman said. "We’re going to be tough. We’re going to be gritty. We’re going to work incredibly hard. We’re going to be focused on what we do. We’re going to bring unbelievable energy and enthusiasm to our daily work. And we’re going to do it all with integrity.
"We will not cut corners to success. We don’t ever want to achieve something and have people question the means by which that achievement was gained. So we’ll do things the right way, but it's going to take some time.”
Whitman, an Illinois grad, needs time to clean up the mess.
The three major hires made by Whitman's predecessor, Mike Thomas, all have failed to move their programs forward to this point.
Since Thomas hired Tim Beckman -- who was dismissed last August following an independent investigation into player abuse and medical misconduct -- four years ago, Illinois football is 6-26 (.188) during Big Ten play. The Illini are 36-84 during Big Ten play since 2000, Whitman’s last of four seasons as a starter at tight end. Current head coach Bill Cubit was given a two-year contract by Illinois administration after he led Illinois to a 5-7 overall record (2-6 Big Ten) last season as the interim coach.
"We have had as much success in fits and starts as any program in the country," Whitman said. "We've played in great bowl games (BCS berths in 2001 and 2007) we've participated in, and we've been ranked in the top-10 in the nation. That's the trick, isn't it? It's trying to identify how we develop a sustainable model that allows us to deliver consistent success to our fans and university. I don't have the answer. I never will pretend to. But certainly that process starts and it starts today. We'll get the right people around the table. We'll have the right conversations. I'm a huge believer in people over anything else. I've seen the impact that the right staff and the right people can have on a program. I think that that's ultimately where will place our emphasis."
Barring a miraculous run to win the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois basketball will miss its sixth NCAA Tournament in the past nine seasons. During those nine seasons, Illinois is 69-89 (.437) during Big Ten play. Many fans are wondering if Whitman will decide to make a change in men's basketball.
Groce, who has three seasons left on his contract with a buyout of about $1.7 million, is on his way to missing his third straight NCAA Tournament, something that hasn't happened at Illinois since 1980. But Groce has been the unfortunate target of an unprecedented rash of injuries and has an intriguing roster set up for next season and has put in the work for what could be a program-changing class in 2017.
Whitman and administration must determine whether Groce is the best coach to lead Illinois to a prosperous future.
"I would guess that my expectations are the same as everybody's," Whitman said. "We expect to compete for and win conference and national championships. The challenge of course is taking us from point A to Point B and try to develop a process and plan to move us in that direction. All of us are thirsty for that level of success. I was working in the DIA during that great run in 2005, and I understand what an impactful moment that can be for our fan base and how powerful that can feel for everybody who bleeds orange and blue. We certainly are excited to work in that direction and create such a tremendous legacy for our fans."
Even Illinois women's basketball is a sore spot at Illinois. Matt Bollant, who went 148-19 overall and 85-5 in five seasons at Wisconsin-Green Bay, is 19-52 during Big Ten play at Illinois. Like football, Bollant's program was investigated for allegations of player abuse, as well as racism. Unlike football, the independent investigation claimed the allegations were unfounded.
Whitman, who is wrapping up his work at Division III Washington University in St. Louis, doesn't officially take over the job until March 21. Illini fans eagerly -- or anxiously -- await his first big moves.
Though Whitman claims he's not the Illini savior nor the Illini's white knight to lead them to Ohio State or Michigan levels, he has brought hope to a fan base. They wait to see what kind of change he has in store.
"People are looking for something to rally around," Whitman said. "They're looking for optimism. They're looking for a reason to be excited. I am certainly not the answer, but I hope I can be a part of that answer. If my arrival can signal to some people that we're turning the page and moving on to a bright, bold future than I'm happy to play that role."