In first year, young Illinois AD Whitman backs up `We will win' with energetic hires

The guy who had the best year at Illinois didn’t win a game. But he won the most important battle.

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Hat’s off to Josh Whitman for rolling up his sleeves and putting the fight back in the Fighting Illini.

When the former Illinois tight end became athletic director at his alma mater in March of 2016, he stepped onto a campus that had seen its two premier sports mired in turmoil.

Football was a litigious embarrassment. Tim Beckman’s reign of error had gone from public gaffes to the allegations of player mistreatment that led to his dismissal.

Basketball had become stuck in the mud under John Groce, who wound up missing the NCAA tournament in his final four seasons in Champaign.

Whitman's unblinking vow: `We will win.' He even put a hashtag on it.

Time will tell whether Lovie Smith makes Illini football competitive again, and whether Brad Underwood can get Illini basketball in the hunt for the glory that the school’s most successful sport covets.

But this much we already know. . .[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Simply by taking the job, Lovie Smith energized the football program. With his success as the Bears head coach, Smith worked on several levels. He brought a reputation for tough, sound defense-oriented football. He brought a stature that would help attract recruits.

And he brought a presence that connected Illinois’ Chicago alumni and fan base with the Downstaters who support the program through thick and thin.

That said, we’ll see how successful Smith, who had been out of the college world for decades, can be with a program that has not been a consistent winner for decades.

But Whitman deserves credit for an interesting and promising hire. Whatever happens with football from here, it should be in a better place than it was after the Beckman debacle.

The young 38-year-old AD made a similarly interesting and promising change by hiring Brad Underwood to lead the sagging basketball program.

Underwood wasn’t Illinois’ first choice. Depending on who you believe, Monty Williams, Cuonzo Martin and Archie Miller all might have been in line ahead of Underwood if they had been interested. And those are just three names that leaked.

But that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that Underwood might end up being the best choice. At 53, he’s a veteran coach who’s known for hitting the ground running (at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State). His 10 years as a Western Illinois assistant means he knows the territory. And his apprenticeships under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, who has guided South Carolina to its first Final Four, are big pluses.

The hiring of both Smith and Underwood bear the fingerprints of former Illini AD Ron Guenther, Whitman’s mentor. And that’s a good thing. Whitman should consult with people like Guenther when making major moves.

Guenther, you may recall, tried to bridge the Chicago-Downstate gap by hiring Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner as head coach, and by urging Lou Tepper to hire former Bear QB Greg Landry as his offensive coordinator.

Underwood is a respected basketball mind who came to head coaching relatively late in his career, like Bruce Weber, whom Guenther hired. Even if Underwood’s stop in Oklahoma was brief, that is a state that sent Illinois a pair of notable coaches, Lou Henson and Bill Self.

Correcting the last of predecessor Mike Thomas’ misfiring hires, Whitman also fired under-performing women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant, and brought in Nancy Fahey, who was very successful at Washington University in St. Louis, where Whitman was AD before returning to Illinois.

That’s a lot of change in the first year for any athletic director, let alone one who’s as young and new as Whitman.

But they all shape up as good choices.

When Josh Whitman was an All-Big Ten tight end at Illinois, I always considered him a go-to guy for a quote. Even in college, under that Mr. Clean shaved-head look that he preferred, there was always good, smart, honest insight. He was not afraid to mention his own lack of foot-speed.

After he left Illinois, I followed his career through some friends we had in common and by saying hello when he was in Champaign from time to time.

He took all the steps, using a few years as a fringe NFL player to finance law school, and working as a sports attorney, and then learning from Guenther in Champaign before becoming an AD at Wisconsin-La Crosse.

I always expected that he would end up as Illinois’ athletic director, although not as quickly as it happened.

Then again, I didn’t expect him to act as decisively as he has in remaking Illinois’ athletic coaching profile.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. But all things considered Whitman, in his first year, has made some good choices to deliver on his promise that ``We will win.’’[/membership]