Hopefully, Josh Whitman enjoyed his day off Saturday. He should enjoy one on Sunday too. He definitely deserves a lazy weekend following an arduous complete demolition and renovation of his basketball programs the last three weeks -- and a volleyball coach search the month prior. But by Monday, Whitman surely will be onto the next big task. The good news is that he doesn't appear to have another coach on the hot list -- at least for a while. And two of the coaches who would be hot commodities seem unlikely to go anywhere because they're Illinois alums (Mike Small and Justin Spring). But Illinois athletics still needs a lot of work. Starting with...
No. 1 on Whitman's list: supply his top three coaches (football and the two basketball programs) with the facilities they need. Whitman is already underway with a $132 million football facilities project. This was first dubbed as a renovation of the south end of the stadium, and that area certainly will get a facelift. But as Whitman, Lovie Smith, director of football operations Tim Knox and others have delved further into the project -- which the Illini hope to complete by the start of the 2019 season -- it is becoming more likely that the new football facility will be attached to the indoor facility (to the northeast of the stadium). The Illini think that setup -- which will include locker rooms; training, recovery, and sports medicine facilities; meeting and office spaces; and recruiting venues -- could be more comfortable and user-friendly. Whitman, Smith and Knox have toured several other power-five facilities and seem to think the setup would work best. Illinois desperately needs an upgrade. Because no matter what anyone says publicly, facilities matter in recruiting and the Illini are miles behind their Big Ten competitors. The football offices look straight out of the 80s and the meeting rooms are cramped. The weight room is great, but Illinois needs massive upgrades and a little flash.
While State Farm Center got a much-needed upgrade, it's about time for a basketball practice facility upgrade too. Ubben opened as a first-of-its-kind stand-alone practice facility about two decades ago. But the rest of the basketball world has caught up -- and most are passing up the Illini. This project seems years away but there has been chatter of a new basketball facility attached to the State Farm Center (on the north side, just across the street from Memorial Stadium). Nebraska, Michigan and others have the best and greatest locker rooms and gadgets at their facilities. The Illini don't want to fall too far behind in the arms race.
Then -- and maybe even prior to the basketball facility -- Illinois Field needs attention. Following a historic 50-win, regional championship-winning 2015 season, Dan Hartleb received a contract extension from former AD Mike Thomas through 2020 that will pay him $290,000 annually. The deal kept Hartleb, who has been on the Illinois baseball staff for two decades, from leaving for other offers. But Thomas also told Hartleb that a renovation of Illinois Field would soon follow. If Illinois really wants the Illini to repeat the 2015 season, it must invest in a state-of-the-art baseball field. The Illini are near, if not at, the bottom of the Big Ten in baseball facilities. The locker room and dugouts are inferior. There are no seatbacks. There is no student section. Illini baseball games can be great spring events for families and students (think of a student section in newly constructed bleachers). But te Illini likely need donors to step up and pay the $15 million likely required to fund such a stadium.
Then there are smaller items.
- This is for my boy Lon Tay: a home men's golf match. The best program in the athletic department is the least visible. Mike Small has explained that unpredictable weather likely keeps the Illini from hosting a match in Champaign on one of the few weekends available on the schedule. Then how about the Illini open a summer/fall alumni match to the public (for a small fee that benefits the program). I'd go watch some pros take on the Illini's current team full of future pros.
- Schedule a real opponent at the United Center. UIC, BYU and New Mexcio State aren't going to draw the attention of the city. While of course a winning Illini team is the best draw, go big or stay home with the United Center game.
- Rebrand the rebrand. I like the football jerseys and love the soccer jerseys. Keep the shield, if you want. But the baseball uniforms were a bad idea, and the basketball uniforms are really meh. How about you just make the Flyin' Illini throwbacks your go-to? Classic never goes out of style. Just ask Penn State and Michigan football.
- Bring back the Arch Rivalry football game. The Braggin' Rights Game is about to get a lot more fun with Mizzou basketball adding coach Cuonzo Martin and No. 1 overall prospect Michael Porter Jr. and Illini basketball adding coach Brad Underwood and five-star East St. Louis center Jeremiah Tilmon. Let's keep this border rivalry humming with a contract for the Mizzou-Illinois football rivalry. Whitman and Lovie Smith both seem in favor of it, and neither is scared of Mizzou. Previous commitments make this seem unlikely until 2022 or beyond, but let's get a series on paper -- preferably at least a six year contract that also includes a home-and-home at Champaign and Columbia.
- No new mascot, please. I'm not against a mascot, but I really don't want that stirred up again. I'm already exhausted thinking about it.