EDWARDSVILLE — Josh Whitman said Southwestern Illinois is vital to the University of Illinois sports plans.
The new Illini director of athletics emphasized that point Friday during a press conference at the new Mannie Jackson Center for Humanities on the north side of Edwardsville.
“We want to have a presence in the St. Louis area and become more visible,” said Whitman, who signed a 5-year, $3 million contact with the Illini. He officially starts work March 21 in Champaign.
He added, “Southwestern Illinois and St. Louis are critical for us. The St. Louis metro region is the second-largest one in the Illini area.”
Whitman, 37, was named the new U of I director of athletics Wednesday. Since the announcement, his whirlwind goodwill tour began in Champaign. Then he traveled to Chicago before embarking for the Metro East. Whitman, the 14th AD in the school’s tradition-rich sports history, replaces Mike Thomas, who was fired Nov. 9.
The West Lafayette, Ind., native is ready to hit the ground running. He already knows the Illini landscape because he’s one of their own.
During his time as a law student at the university, Whitman worked in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics on several projects, including endowment, plus marketing and planning for the now-completed $121 million renovation of Memorial Stadium.
An Illini football player (1997-2000) and graduate, Whitman brings an impressive portfolio to the job, interim U of I chancellor Barbara Wilson said. Whitman was formerly director of athletics at Washington University in St. Louis and Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“His Illinois heritage made him an appealing candidate,” Wilson said, “but that’s not the reason he stood out in the search. He impressed us all with his work ethic, his passion, his concern for the welfare of student-athletes and commitment to diversity. He has a record of leaving programs under his leadership better and stronger than when he arrived.”
He spent the past two years at NCAA Division III Washington University after working at Wisconsin-La Crosse for four years.
“This (Illini) job is the only one in the country I would have left Washington University to take,” Whitman said. “It didn’t take a lot to convince me to take it. I think I bring leadership and passion to the job and what we need right now are leadership and vision.”
Whitman has two degrees, one in law and the other in finance, from the U of I. When Whitman played for the Illini, he was a four-year starter at tight end and two-year academic All-American.
His four-year NFL career included stints with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
“It’s a dream for me to return to my alma mater as the director of athletics,” Whitman said. “With strong leadership, a bold vision and daring integrity, we can build an athletic program befitting our great university.
He noted, “The future is bright for the Illini and I will work tirelessly to achieve those goals. We are spreading the message with a sense of optimism. Our fans have been thirsting for our success.
“I think we have an unbelievable program with a great story to tell.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany applauded the Illini for their hiring of Whitman.
“Josh is well-respected and very bright,” Delany said. “He will be a terrific addition to the university and the conference.”
Former U of I director of athletics Ron Guenther had an impact on steering Whitman toward a career in athletic administration and drove home some life lessons. Guenther was the Illini AD from 1992-2011.
“One thing I always remember that Ron told me was that sometimes you have to be prepared to bet on yourself,” Whitman said. “That resonated with me.”