[Editor's note: Hat tip to Chicago Tribune senior digital sports editor Amanda Kaschube for the story idea.]
CHAMPAIGN - A three-word phrase resonated so well during Josh Whitman's introductory press conference last year that the Illinois athletics director inspired a new Twitter hashtag #WeWillWin.
The simple sentence -- with one noun, one modal verb and the most important verb in sports -- was exactly what so many Illini fans needed to hear following a decade of mostly disappointment in the program's top sports. The confidence of Whitman to say "will" instead of "can" or "should" just further reassured fans that it may just have the right leader at the right time.
Whitman wants Illinois to puff out its chest more often. So when it came time to announce his first, head-turning hire (Lovie Smith), he wanted to reinforce his "We will win" mantra.
That birthed the now-famous #WeWillWin sign.
The sign was simplistic: your average, flimsy 8.5-inch by 11-inch piece of white office paper with "#WeWillWin" in large, bold-faced font situated above an orange Block I logo.
Whitman, a fairly active tweeter, has announced each of his new hires -- before the school sends out the press release -- by tweeting a picture of he and the new coach each holding one side of the sign.
But the Illini AD originally wanted the sign to look a little different.
"My original idea when we did Lovie was to have a hand-written sign," Whitman said. "I just wanted to make it look really organic."
But Illinois sports information directors Kent Brown and Derek Neal advised Whitman that his handwriting would be too difficult to read. After being presented with a hand-written copy and several different versions of printed copies, Whitman took the advice of his public-relations team.
"They were like, 'Nah, they're not going to be able to read your handwriting and it's going to look bad.' Then I agreed to let them print it," Whitman said.
Neal said Illinois has printed off a different sign for each hire. After all, Whitman went almost a year between hires (Smith in March 2016 and volleyball coach Chris Tamas last month).
But the Illini have upgraded for the last signs, printing #WeWillWin on thick cardstock paper for the tweets announcing new men's and women's basketball coaches Brad Underwood and Nancy Fahey.
Whitman said he didn't expect the sign to become a "thing" but said the response to it has reinforced that the sheet of office paper will remain a staple of his program.
"It's been good," Whitman said.