Illini AD Josh Whitman: Fun to 'tackle the big challenges in front of us'

IlliniInquirer.com publisher Jeremy Werner caught up with Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman about the Big Ten TV deal, expansion, transfers, a UI mascot, Dee Brown and the Lovie Smith effect on his department

You were just at the Big Ten AD meetings. You've been through two of those now. What are the biggest issues you guys are attacking right now as a group?

Whitman: "There are a number of big issues out there that ultimately will have some pretty significant impact on college athletics. And that to me is one of the exciting things to me about this job, having that chance to be at the table and to have some voice no matter how small that might be in the ultimate direction we go as an enterprise. Some of the things that I see out there is, one, we've got tremendous conversation right now around student-athlete time demands, around what is the commitment that we're expecting out of our student-athletes. Are we really allowing them enough time in their other parts of their college experience to enjoy that and to pursue their academics and their social mission in the same way they do their athletic endeavors. That's something that is taking a lot of attention, a lot of focus right now.

"Football recruiting, I think, is an area that is going to continue to magnify in importance."

Did you go to any satellite camps when you  were a recruit?

Whitman"(Laughs) Not as a recruit, no."

Feels like Lovie is doing one everywhere.

Whitman: "I know, but by some other folks, we're paling in comparison with the numbers. Really, the satellite camp issue has just served as a magnifying issue on this bigger issue of recruiting in football. There are a number of different  groups that are engaged now and really looking comprehensively at football recruiting and how we can bring some overarching change to the process that I think would be for the betterment not only for our coaches and our programs but for our prospective student-athletes. So that's a big one."

You brought up the TV deal when you hired Lovie, and that you made a big commitment financially based partly on that. Where do you think the Big Ten is with this TV deal? People are cord-cutting. Does that have any effect on what you guys are going to get from your TV deals coming up?

Whitman: "Well, we're all kind of waiting to see. Every time we're together, Commissioner (Jim) Delany -- who I think is just a visionary in the world of college athletics -- brings us up to speed on where things stand. I'm not really at liberty to go into a lot of detail, but we're in the midst of negotiations. I think we all feel optimistic about what those outcomes will be. I think it will be a lucrative relationship for us, probably moreso than it has been even -- which is encouraging. We're counting on that in some sense in the way that we've budgeted in future years. It'll be interesting. The cord-cutting phenomenon is important, and it will have long-term ramifications on our business. So I think one of the challenges in front of us is to continue to evolve the same way that people consume information has evolved. Figuring out ways to monetize that to sustain our business model will be important. The days of the old bundle where 100 percent of the people are paying for what two percent of the people watch is ultimately going to probably disappear. We need to be prepared to deal with that as it happens."

How about expansion? Did you guys talk any about expansion at the Big Ten meetings?

Whitman: "You know, it's always out there. I don't think that's a real concern for us at the moment. There's a lot of conversation right now around the Big 12 and what they're going to do. You never know. Once somebody starts one of those dominoes then things start to fall, but I think right now we feel pretty good about the members that we have. It's put us in a really strong position from a conference standpoint. I don't see us aggressively going out and looking to make any moves. I think the only thing that would change is if our hand gets forced a little bit by some of the other conferences doing things. I think our preference would be to sit with the status quo for a while now and kind of let things settle. Candidly, I hope we're allowed to do that. I hope our environment let's that happen."

Transfers. Some people have called it an "epidemic." Is this an epidemic in your mind? Is this a problem for college sports?

Whitman: "I don't know if it's a problem. It's certainly something worth considering. It does present a lot of challenge. I think it does call into question the purpose of our student-athletes coming to college. If it's truly to get an education, I think we need to re-evaluate how we do some of these things. The fifth-year transfer rule has really ballooned here in the last few years. It's really opened up some eyes and begged some hard questions about what our values are as an enterprise. So I think it wil lbe under some pretty intense scrutiny here. It's tough. You talk to some of the basketball coaches, they were up there with us last week, and I think it asks some questions about what are we teaching our students. We're teaching the, 'If you go to place A and you're not happy then immediately you go to place B and you're not happy. Then you go to Place C and you're not happy,' So I think that ultimately we want to instill in our students a toughness, a resiliency and I don't know right now depending on the rules that we're doing that as effectively as we can. The reality is and I think it was one of the coaches who said, 'Who as a freshman is really happy?' As a freshman football player, as a freshman basketball player, as a freshman student, it is really hard and it's going to be hard. That doesn't mean you should just jump ship and go find the next thing because it's going to be hard there too. The reality is that being a college student-athlete is hard. You're not going to find a lot of places where it's easier."

Internally, Warren is your No. 2, deputy athletic director. Obviously you have experience with him when you worked under former Illini AD Ron Guenther. What does he mean to you? And how are you figuring this structure out internally? Because obviously you inherited some people. You want people who are like-minded. You want to get your people in as well. I think Ron Guenther did some great things. Mike Thomas had some ideas that people liked. Are you trying to merge the two and trying to figure out a way to keep Illinois attached to its history but also move it forward?

Whitman: "Absolutely. Warren I think the world of obviously by putting him in this role. He's done such different things for us over time. To spearhead that stadium renovation project 10 year ago was an unbelievably ambitious undertaking. He led it with tremendous skill and expertise. Now with his work at the State Farm Center and the things he's done on the external side of the house, generating revenue for the program. He brings a very diverse perspective because he's done so many different things and done it for so long. So that was an easy decision for me. There's a high level of trust between the two of us with me having worked for him 10 years ago. So to put him in that role was exciting for me and I know Warren will do a tremendous job.

"Jeremy, to your second question. It's just more of a feel process than anything. I have a little bit of a leg up because I'm familiar with a lot of the staff. I have an institutional comfort that allows me maybe to traverse that process more quickly than someone who had no familiarity with the place or people. I think we had a jump start on some of those evaluations and who needs to be on the bus and what seats they need to be in. That to me is one of the fun parts of this job is really to put a structure in place that allows us to do and tackle the big challenges in front of us. It's really the most important thing I do, and really the first thing I have to do. Before we can aggressively move out and start charting this course, we need to have the team in place in the right places. That's been fun."

You made a no-brainer move with Dee Brown. What's that going to mean? I know it's exciting for a lot of Illini basketball program.

Whitman: "It was huge for us. Dee obviously is an incredibly important person in the history of our program. He brings a very unique perspective that we thought would be very beneficial to our current team, our future team. I think in light of some of the challenges we faced off the court here with that team, that it made all the more clear that having someone in that kind of role would be beneficial, someone who can be that kind of big brother to the guys, who stepped in those shoes and understood those pressures and hopefully could guide them to make good decisions on the court and off it. Then on the recruiting side, he's a very valuable person. The enthusiasm he brings, the institutional memory. I think he brings a level of intensity to that program that is very, very helpful, and I think it'll pay big dividends for us down the road."

Do you have any thoughts on Sassy the Squirrel ... or any other mascot ideas out there?

Whitman: "(Laughs) Sassy and I don't have much of a relationship. I haven't spent a lot of time with, with it. It's an interesting situation we're in. I can appreciate, as well as anybody, the history there and it's one of the more delicate issues that we can face as a university, let alone an athletic program. The students have brought this idea forward. Our chancellor, to her credit, gives the students a tremendous voice and tremendous input. We've set off on the course, and as an athletic program I think our responsibility is to support our chancellor and our institution. We will work collaboratively with them to make sure we're coming up with some ideas that are better than Sassy. We'll see where this thing ultimately goes. It's not going to go fast. It's going to be a long and thoughtful process. I think one of the concerns is that we're going to screw it up. That we're going to come back with a squirrel or a fuzzy bear or whatever it is. What I've been asking people is patience. Let's see how the process unfolds. Let's see what we come up with. Before we judge it, let's judge it based on the results, not the idea."

Two months after you hired him, what's the Lovie Smith effect been on your athletic department?

Whitman: "You know, it's been everything I hoped it would be and so much more. The more time I've spent with him, the more I respect him, the more I like him, the more confident I am in the direction the football program is headed. He's just an unbelievable person. He's a tremendous football coach. He's an exceptional leader. We've had a chance now too get him out in public now at a few events. He's very approachable. People seem engaged with him. So it's been great. It's been great. We made it through the first spring football. We got the coaches now out on the road recruiting. Everything I hear is that the feedback from the road has been unbelievably positive. I think a lot of the coaches I've  been meeting with have done an unbelievable job of conveying that enthusiasm that exists around our program right now. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun to be a part of the Illinois football program right now."


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