CHAMPAIGN - Josh Whitman inherited nationally elite men's golf and men's gymnastics programs. They serve to the other 17 programs as a model of what could be.
But Whitman, who just completed his first full academic year as Illinois athletics director, knows he'll need time to mold those programs into title contenders.
"The goal is to compete for Big Ten and national championships," Whitman said Tuesday at a media roundtable at Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building. "So the end point for most of our programs is the same. The difference is the starting point."
Even if basketball is at No. 1 in most Illini fans' hearts, Whitman's No. 1 task -- and biggest task -- is the football program. And the starting point was near rock bottom.
Whitman inherited a program previously run by a steward (Bill Cubit) hired by interim leadership who were in power due to an abuse scandal that led to the firings of the previous football coach (Tim Beckman) and athletics director (Mike Thomas). Oh, and Illinois had won just eight Big Ten games the previous five seasons.
To put it bluntly, Illinois football needed an enema. And Whitman made a splash fire on his first day on the job (firing Cubit) and a splash hire just two days later, formally announcing Lovie Smith as his head coach. The initial excitement helped spur the program's first sellout since 2011 for the Week 2 game against North Carolina, a 48-23 Illini loss at Memorial Stadium.
But an expensive football staff still learning its personnel midway through the season (due to its late mid-spring hiring) inherited a roster that lacked depth, speed and strength. Plus, only one player on the roster -- grad transfer Hardy Nickerson -- was recruited by Smith's staff.
All of it led to a 3-9 season that quickly turned down the volume of the initial Lovie buzz. Though Smith showed promise on the recruiting trail, signing a top-35 recruiting class that included recruiting wins over Notre Dame, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State, Missouri, North Carolina and other strong power-five programs.
Smith and Whitman both know that rebooting the Illini football program isn't as simple and quick as pushing a button on a computer.
Whitman said he wants to build a "sustainable" football program that "endures," unlike the recent history of spikes of success followed by years of struggles. He's investing heavily in the program, giving Smith a six-year contract that could total $29 million and Smith's staff a $4 million salary pool that ranks among the top in the Big Ten. He also plans construction of a $60 million to $80 million football performance facility that will put the Illini on par with some of the better facilities in the conference.
Whitman delved deep into detail on Tuesday about where the Illini football program stands in Year 2 under Smith, the length of the rebuild and what he needs from the fan base.
On investing heavily in the football program
"I think it would be short-sighted to invest the way we have in that coaching staff and then not invest in the other things that are necessary in order to bring the program forward," Whitman said. "It'd be like running the 100-meter dash and stopping after 50. You've got to put all the pieces in place to build a championship program. Sometimes I liken it to cooking a great meal. You've got all the different ingredients, and you got all the different things that you want to come ready at the same time. You've got to put everything together strategically that kind of brings it all to a boil at the right moment. We've put plans in place now with the staff and the facility. You're starting to see us turn it."
On patience of a rebuild
"I think what's important to remind people is that 20 years ago I came here as a freshman," Whitman said. "I was part of Ron Turner's first recruiting class. We went 0-11 (during the 1997 season). My second year, we went 3-8. In today's world, people would panic. People would absolutely freak out and say, 'We've got to do something different. Wholesale changes on the coaching staff.' People would say it's too slow. You'll remember what happened in that third year (under Turner). We flipped it (to an 8-4 record and MicronPC Bowl win). All of a sudden, we were a top-25 program. We win at Michigan. We win at Ohio State. A few years after that, they win the Big Ten (in 2001). And everybody in that building knew that what we were doing was going to work. That's been a big part of our message to not just our fans but our student-athletes, our team, our coaches. Look, we're in this for the long-haul. We're developing a plan here that will yield long-term success. Let's not panic. Let's continue to swing the sledgehammer every single day and have confidence in the direction that this is going to go. I hope our fans continue to see that."
On what he needs from fans
"Everything's inter-related in this. When you go and we have recruits on campus for a game in the fall, and they walk into a half-empty Memorial Stadium, what message does that send them about where football stands at the University of Illinois? Then they may choose to go somewhere else. In order for them to come, we need to show them it's important, to be passionate about our program. It's kind of a chicken-and-the-egg argument. How do you get people to get excited about a program that hasn't had success in recent history? But if we don't get that excitement, it's going to be hard to change the direction of where we're headed. What we have told them -- we've told donors, we've told ticket holders, we've told fans -- is that we need that buy in now. You can't just wait and buy tickets after we're good. We need you to support us now in the moment and help us make the change and flip the switch. It's happening.
"I hope fans saw some things last year that got them excited. I have not felt the way I felt standing on the field for kickoff of the North Carolina game than I have in a very long time. The electricity in that venue -- and I know the game didn't end the way that we wanted -- but I hope our fans viewed in the same way that I did, that our players did, that our coaches did: as a glimpse of what's possible. That we can do that every game."
On Lovie Smith's impact
"We needed some tweaking in our culture. We needed our people to feel optimistic and confident that they were going to succeed. I think for a while we felt like the cartoon character who had a dark cloud following him around and it rained on him wherever he went. We needed to get away from that and start to really stick our chest out and be good about being a part of the Illini athletic program.
"I know some people are frustrated because recruits are going to some other places. But, look, we're in conversations for some great players. We weren't in those conversations a couple years ago. So this is a process. You got to get in the conversation first. And then we're going to get some and we're not going to get some. But over time, we're going to get more. Ultimately, we're going to get enough. Then we're going to start winning a lot of football games. So this is a process. It takes a long time to build something that ultimately is going to be at the level we all want. I just couldn't be more confident and more excited about the direction that program's headed.