CHAMPAIGN – Josh Whitman has a job that hardly anyone in town can relate to.
After more than five years in his role as Illinois athletic director, Whitman, 43, deftly moved among the crowd at the downtown Esquire in Champaign once his appearance on ‘Monday Night SportsTalk’ of WDWS 1400-AM ended earlier this week.
He has seen familiar faces and longtime season ticket holders for Illini sporting events. Those who enjoyed watching Illinois long before Whitman first arrived on the IU campus to begin his college football career with the Illini in 1997.
He then visited his family, with his wife Hope and their two young children, their 5 year old daughter Tate and their 3 year old son Will. Fatherhood has changed Whitman’s take on his work, with the former Illinois tight end having to pull himself together when I asked him if he was a father two years ago during his last solo appearance at the Esquire for our weekly radio show.
No tears ensued on Monday night. But a lot has changed in the past two years since Whitman’s last stop by the Esquire in September 2019. Here’s an update on a variety of issues with the Illini and varsity athletics that Whitman has had. discussed on Monday:
About Illinois Football
Bret Bielema is still undefeated in the Big Ten game as Illini’s coach. But he won’t end his first season at Champaign with a record of non-conference wins after two straight losses to Texas San Antonio and Virginia. The chance for Illinois (1-2) to end their losing two-game skid comes at 8 p.m. Friday when Maryland (2-0) and their powerful offense make it to Memorial Stadium.
“A few have struggled here in recent weeks, but they’re still excited about this team and what we can accomplish,” said Whitman. “The term we have been using since the day we introduced Coach Bielema has been a sustained success. We are going to build this the right way. I am not erasing this season by any stretch of the imagination. We have faced two good teams in the past two weeks. I think when the season is written we’ll go back to this year and see that UTSA and Virginia have had some really good seasons.
Injuries to players like quarterback Brandon Peters, running backs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein and others haven’t helped Whitman. But he would like to see Illinois play well earlier in games, with teams overtaking Illini 21-2 in the first quarter.
“We all recognize that we have to come out of the box stronger,” Whitman said. “We need to play cleaner games than we did. I am very optimistic we will be able to do this.
“That’s the great thing about college sport. We don’t have the luxury of sitting down and saying, “Woe to me” for a very long time. We have a very good team from Maryland coming here Friday night.
On possible Memorial Stadium upgrades
In Whitman’s first full year as Illinois athletic director, he unveiled ambitious plans in the fall of 2016 to renovate the east and south sides, known as the horseshoe, of Memorial Stadium. . Those plans eventually changed and evolved into the $ 80 million standalone Smith Center that sits on the east side of the stadium.
Whitman said he did not abandon plans to upgrade the East Side and the Horseshoe at some point in the future, especially after the West Zone and the North Zone received upgrades. massive before the start of the 2008 season.
“It’s really a hot topic for us, both east and south,” Whitman said. “We are very grateful to our fans who spend their time in the east and south, and we know we need to improve this experience as well. It is, as you would imagine, a very expensive business. Nothing is cheap anymore. Start having conversations about the best way to approach this project.
Whitman envisioned a time, before the pandemic, when all of these improvements would be completed before the 2023 season to honor Memorial Stadium’s 100th anniversary.
“I still have that idea in my head, but with each passing month, the idea that comes to fruition, it gets a little smaller,” Whitman said, “but it’s a project that we really care about. mind and something that we talk about regularly at this point.
Before the pandemic, whenever Whitman had a microphone in his hands or met a group of reporters, the subject of Illinois potentially adding hockey arose. More than four years after the completion of the first feasibility study, in conjunction with the NHL – which said yes, Illinois hockey would be a popular sport in CU – the topic is being discussed again, although Whitman does. didn’t provide many specific details when asked about it on Monday.
“We reignited some of those conversations. It was an idea that was obviously very much in our minds for a number of years. When the pandemic hit, that conversation took a back seat very quickly when we left it until very recently when we reopened some of these discussions with all the different stakeholders, ”said Whitman. “We just want to get a feel for how their worlds have changed as our world has changed, and is there still an appetite to take on this project?” It’s an ongoing conversation now.
Whitman did not offer a timeline on when decisions about the future of hockey in Illinois would take place.
“It was a pretty complex conversation before,” he said. “I would say it certainly hasn’t gotten any easier in light of the pandemic.”
On other facility improvements
The southern part of the UI campus has changed dramatically since Whitman landed the job in February 2016. Due to all the construction that has taken place, the Smith Center and Demirjian Park are two of the most popular sporting venues. recent for the Illini.
But work is underway for training facilities for four sports: the Ubben Basketball Complex, the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center, and the Rex and Alice A. Martin Softball Training Center. . Not to mention the renovations underway at the Atkins Golf Club in southeast Urbana.
Whitman said Ubben’s scheduled end is late 2022, with the first pieces of steel for the multi-million dollar project late last week.
Even with all the facility upgrades that took place during the Whitman era, the question still stands: what’s next?
“If we don’t think about the sequel,” Whitman said, “then I’m not doing my job.”
Improvements to Memorial Stadium seem clearly on Whitman’s agenda, as does the possibility of a downtown arena that was set to host Illinois hockey games, as well as the relocation of the Illinois volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics to the new multi-purpose arena and away from Huff Hall.
“Huff Hall is a building that needs attention,” Whitman said. “What’s the future of Huff?” I think this is an important question. We have seen parking decrease over the years as the university, to his credit, has also continued to build. Parking will continue to become a bonus for volleyball and other events happening at Huff. We need to have tough conversations about what that future is. It’s all part of the discussion process right now.
Friday night football matches and crowds
The game against Maryland marks the third Friday night home game for Illinois in the past five seasons. Illinois lost the previous two, losing 63-24 to Penn State in 2018 and 28-6 to Nebraska in 2017.
“Our approach has always been, certainly for a program like ours which is trying to build its reputation both locally and nationally, any chance we have to stand out from the crowd on Saturday when we are competing with it. lots and lots of other games to get attention, we’ll take it, ”Whitman said. “It’s not something we want to do every week. We certainly recognize the tradition of Friday night (high school) football locally, and we don’t want to stray from it, but if we can do that every once in a while, once a season, where we can go out and give ourselves that shot. spotlight getting a nice win against a good team from Maryland, I think that’s something we’d be dumb if we weren’t trying to take advantage of it.
The Illinois Department of Sports is offering free student tickets to Friday night’s game, with the North Zone regularly full for the first two home games. The average attendance for the Big Ten’s last two home games on Friday night, obviously occurring before a global pandemic took hold, was 38,8,881 at the 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium. The Illini have announced an average attendance of 37,485 for their first two home games this season as people still feel comfortable attending sporting events amid the pandemic.
Whitman said he plans to have a full section of students against Maryland in the north end area and expects some to take seats on the east side of the stadium on Friday night.
“If we can get them out there like we did against Nebraska and give them a good memory,” Whitman said, “then that’s something they’ll want to see repeated and hopefully. they will start to come back. “
Hall of Fame weekend
One upcoming weekend event that is going a bit under the radar is Saturday’s Illinois Track and Field Hall of Fame ceremony. The Class of 2020, the fourth class to be inducted, will be honored at 1 p.m. on Saturday in a free ceremony at the State Farm Center. The class of 15 was announced in April 2020, but did not have a public event to recognize them last year due to the pandemic.
Among the Illini alumni expected to attend on Saturday: 1995 Butkus Prize winner Kevin Hardy, recent Olympic volleyball gold medalist Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and former Olympic pitcher and centennial graduate Gia Lewis-Smallwood.
“We’re not getting as many returns as we hoped for, for a variety of reasons, but we should be getting between six and eight,” Whitman said. “I encourage everyone to come out. It is a very beautiful event and something that we are really looking forward to.