CHAMPAIGN - Josh Whitman and a few colleagues sat around a table in January "spitballing" names of potential new Illinois football coaches. Someone -- Whitman doesn't remember exactly who -- brought up Lovie Smith, who had just been fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after just two seasons.
Before Whitman's dream of becoming the Illinois athletics director was realized, the former Illini football player was dreaming of pulling in a program-changing coach to revitalize his alma mater.
"I just kind of latched onto that,” Whitman said Monday following Smith's introductory press conference as the 25th Illini football coach. “I never knew if the opportunity would be there to bring that idea to fruition. I’ve always said with my leadership I’m not the smartest guy in the room, and I’m not always the one who’s going to come up with the idea. But I’m pretty good at recognizing good ideas when I hear them. When I heard his name, I immediately thought, ‘That one could make some sense.’”
Dreaming of landing Smith -- an 11-year head coach in the NFL, including nine with the Chicago Bears -- is different than making it a reality.
Monday may have been "Lovie Fest" in Champaign, but it was all made possible by the 37-year-old former Division III athletics director who has proved in just 18 days since his own introductory press conference that he is big-time.
Whitman thinks big and acts big, firing short-term solution Bill Cubit on his first official on the job. Whitman's successful pursuit of Smith -- completed by Day Three -- should have Illini fans recalibrating expectations , which have fallen following a decade of decline.
Like their AD, Illini fans should start dreaming bigger and better.
“We’re making our turn," Whitman said. "This is a bold statement. It’s an important statement.”
Whitman wouldn't say he was committed to dismissing Cubit upon accepting the job at Illinois. but it's clear Whitman thought holding onto Cubit on the unconventional two-year deal given to him by interim leadership was not best for Illinois. So Whitman made a list of possible candidates. Smith was at the top.
Without knowing Smith, Whitman reached out to someone he knows well who knows Smith well: his Illini head coach Ron Turner, who served as Smith's offensive coordinator with the Bears from 2005-2009. Turner reached out to Smith to relay Whitman's interest. When Smith reciprocated, Whitman directly called Smith on Monday, Feb. 22.
After several days of phone conversations, Whitman flew to Tampa to meet Smith in his home and discuss philosophy, vision and X's and O's. With clear mutual interest, Whitman moved forward.
The next day, Whitman drove to nearby Naples, Fla., where interim chancellor Barbara Wilson was attending an academic conference. They talked over breakfast to discuss the preliminary possibility of pursuing Smith and cutting ties with Cubit.
"She immediately saw the value in it," Whitman said. "She understood what some of the challenges have been."
Wilson called UI president Timothy Killeen, who also was at the conference, and Whitman and Wilson "crashed" Killeen's breakfast with his wife to discuss Whitman's Lovie vision.
"They got it," Whitman said. "They understand the impact this will not just have on Illinois football but the University of Illinois."
So in those quick meetings, Whitman sold university leadership -- which had a reputation (fair or not) of stunting athletics -- of making the boldest and most expensive personnel move in Illini athletics history and a stigma-shattering one (Smith is the first African-American head coach of Illinois football or basketball).
Whitman, though, did not involve many others. No need for a search firm, of which Whitman admitted Saturday he's not a big supporter. And despite the need to gather the resources to make such a move -- more on that in a bit -- Whitman only involved a select few in the process for fear that leaks could kill the plan.
“We literally kept a list of who’s in the circle every day," Whitman said. "Two weeks ago when we started putting this plan in motion, we laid out a very detailed timeline day by day. ‘This is what has to happen on this day. This is what has to happen on the next day.’ We just worked our way through that. As you look back at it, we hit every mark. It was, ‘This person needs to brought in the loop on this day, and then the next day this needs to happen.’ Each step of that process, we were emphasizing, ‘Look, this is critical. If this thing were to come public too early, the whole train could come off the track.’
“We really limited the number of people who were involved in this process and look forward here over the next few days, weeks to really engage some of our supporters, our donors and give them a chance to get around Coach Smith.”
Previous Illinois coaching searches started with a firing followed by procurement of a search firm and then a multi-week search full of leaks and time wasted for "processes." Whitman pursued and landed Smith with almost complete confidentiality and completed the contract in mere days. Leaks of interest in Smith did not start until after Cubit's dismissal was announced on Saturday.
“You don’t go changing football staffs in March without knowing what opportunities might exist on the other end," Whitman said.
Whitman proved in this process that when he has a big vision, he makes a deliberate plan, creates consensus and executes.
Whitman's most impressive accomplishment was his ability to garner the resources needed to land Smith.
Last year, the Illinois athletics department finished in the red for the first time in decades due to costly investigations into two sports, a $2.5 million buyout of former AD Mike Thomas and declining attendance in both revenue sports.
Yet, Whitman signed Lovie Smith to a school-record six-year, $21 million contract, almost double the annual average salary of former Illini coach Tim Beckman. Whitman also signed off on a $4 million assistant salary pool for Smith, a figure that would have ranked third in the Big Ten last season -- behind only Ohio State and Michigan. Cubit's staff salary pool was about $2.4 million.
In just a few weeks, Whitman pushed Illinois to finally invest like a championship-level program.
“This kind of a package, this kind of a deal is not something that we’ve ever done before," Whitman said. "But we all understand of football, the difference it can make it the feeling around our university, donations, applications for admission, all the things that go with a successful athletic program and filling that place across the street. Our president, our chancellor and our board of trustees. They get it. They get it."
Whitman said that Wilson, who led the search for Whitman, was a "champion" of Illinois stepping up its commitment to athletics after Whitman sold her on what Smith could do for the program and university.
“Candidly, (it's an idea) she probably hadn’t entertained before," Whitman said. "I just can’t say enough good things about her willingness to engage in that with me and maintain an open mind and take the time to really understand what I was suggesting and how that might play itself out. To her credit, she instantly seized on it. She understood how significant this could be, not just for our football program but for our entire university. She’s been critical."
Illinois went from having the lowest paid Big Ten coach last season (Cubit) to the sixth highest paid (based on average annual salary). For years, Illini fans have wanted the athletic department to pony up. In fairness, Thomas offered some coaching candidates -- Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora and Shaka Smart -- significant salaries. He just couldn't land them. Whitman found the resources and sold his vision.
“It’s a lot of millions of dollars," Whitman said. "I think it was significant that the university understood that the market for football is changing. ...The moment was right for us to make that move."
Again, Whitman said he kept a tight circle during the process. Maybe he consulted with a few donors (he wouldn't go into details), but if he did, he didn't consult many. Smith's back-loaded deal makes the contract easier for the financially-strapped athletics department to digest for the first three years (when Smith will make a total of $7 million).
By the time Smith makes $14 million over his final three seasons, Whitman hopes Smith will pay for himself (increased Big Ten television money will help too). He's already made a dent.
On Monday, Illinois sold more than 1,000 season-ticket packages -- a six-figure spike in revenue before taking into account additional concessions, parking and merchandise revenue. Illinois had fewer than 28,000 season-ticket holders last season.
“The biggest source of untapped revenue that we have right now is unfilled seats at our football stadium," Whitman said. "If we can put more bodies in the stands, that ultimately sells more food. It means more revenue in parking, merchandise sales. All of that stems from the enthusiasm around the program.”
Whitman has a vision. He has a plan to achieve that vision. In three days, he's shown he can execute a plan quickly, cleanly and decisively.
“This is our moment," Whitman said. "This is our time for the University of Illinois and for our football program.”
It's time. Illinois now is acting like a big-time Big Ten program.
After Whitman's bold and inspired move, Illini fans should think big-time -- because their athletics department is led by a big-time AD.