‘I’m a product of a great institution’ — Levenick credits U of I
By Sean McDevitt
An incredibly small percentage of collegiate student-athletes will go on and play their sport professionally. The rest will be professionals in the “real world.” An even smaller percentage are able to do both.
Stu Levenick was able to do both.
By his own admission, he was not highly recruited out of high school. It was his ability, drive, and determination that turned a walk-on football player into a team captain and an NFL draft pick. It was his leadership, commitment, and integrity that lead him through the ranks of Caterpillar Inc. to become Group President.
The $5 million dollar leadership gift towards the new Illinois Football Performance Center by Levenick and his wife Nancy is a reflection on his experience as a student-athlete and a mandate on the future. His time at Illinois helped craft his success both on and off the field and was a strong motivation to give back.
Levenick grew up in a small town outside of Peoria, but his family has roots in Madison, Wis. With a grandfather who played baseball at the University of Wisconsin and an uncle and father who played football there, early on he thought he was going to be a Badger.
“I wanted to play football, and I thought I’d go to the University of Wisconsin, but my Dad worked for Caterpillar in Peoria and so I grew up in Illinois and naturally that’s the direction I went when it was time to go to school,” Levenick said.
Lucky for the Fighting Illini football team, he headed to Champaign-Urbana and over his tenure at the University developed into a stellar athlete who took full advantage of the academic diversity.
Education was important to his parents and made the choice to go to Illinois easy.
“I enrolled in engineering, I was interested in being a civil engineer,” Levenick said. “I was always into science, I liked that, I was good at math and science and my Dad was an engineer. I went through two years of those classes and then decided to do something else.”
His junior year, he had an injury to his ACL and was a medical redshirt. He took full advantage of his time.
“I took a heavy load of classes, and lots of electives,” Levenick said. “I was taking courses like investment banking and insurance and business law. Things I was just interested in, but you really wouldn’t have gotten that necessarily in an engineering curriculum. That’s when I began to realize how broad the experience can be at the University of Illinois and it’s so much more today than it was then.”
Levenick sees a direct parallel with football and his experience in the business world. When he was on the executive team at Caterpillar he spent time talking to young people as they were coming up through the organization. He found they were looking to replicate his recipe for success and he told them it doesn’t really work that way.
“I was a product of a great institution, a great program and a lot of people helped me along the way and maybe in some small way I’m returning the favor here. I’m hoping it’s also some motivation for others that have had similar experiences to just think deeply about it. Now is when we need it and I think the outcome is going to be something we’ll all be proud of.”
Former Illinois football captain
“Everybody has a different recipe, but for me it was picking out things that really interested me, understanding what my strength and weaknesses were, working on the weaknesses, and to really go after an opportunity when it arose.”
For Levenick, he was able to play two different positions his last two years of football and it would have been three if he hadn’t injured his knee. Each of these opportunities came because of his hard work and dedication.
“I was trying to make the team and then one thing led to another. My real objective was ‘get as good as you can get.’ That’ll take you a lot of different places. That really was the same philosophy I had all through my business career.
“I never set out to be group president, I just wanted to do the best I could, help the company as best as I could and one thing led to another and opportunities arose and I took advantage of them.”
Levenick believes in the lessons learned by playing competitive football applies well to the business world.
“Because it’s a team sport, it brings in this element of courage and pain and sacrifice. I think to bring out the best in a group people and accomplish an objective you need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals and get the most out of that group to achieve a common goal.”
Levenick was able to speak to the current crop of Illinois football players and his message was clear: the combination of a winning athletic program and world-class academics sets Illinois apart.
He said, “No matter how good you are, eventually you gotta come around and do something else for a living and it’s kind of nice to have a good education that you can build on and go out and accomplish something in the real world. To me, I think the combination of what is available on campus academically combined with the opportunities to play big-time college sports… those two together are unbeatable.”
He used Director of Athletics Josh Whitman as an example of the power of that combination.
“Look at the people that have come out of the University, I guess you could say that I’m an example, but we have astronauts, lawyers, doctors, that have been athletes. There’s no better example of the benefits of what I’m talking about than Josh Whitman. Player, law student, Bronze Tablet, are you kidding me? There isn’t a better poster child for what I’m talking about than our current athletic director.”
He sees great things on the horizon for the University and what excites him the most is the alignment between the Board of Trustees, President, Chancellor, Provost, and on down through the institution. The support coming from all corners is important. Adding his name to the support of Illinois athletics is an investment in the future.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well let’s wait until they’re winning games, then I’ll help them out.’ Well, that’s not when they need the help. Now is the time to build the resources and get the right people,” Levenick said. “It’s kind of like the stock market, you don’t want to invest when the market is at a peak, you invest when it’s a trough and then hopefully you get some growth and you get a return. That’s how I look at this.
“I was a product of a great institution, a great program and a lot of people helped me along the way and maybe in some small way I’m returning the favor here. I’m hoping it’s also some motivation for others that have had similar experiences to just think deeply about it and like Josh says, ‘Nobody has to do everything, but everybody oughta do something.’ And maybe that’s motivation to get people to step up a little bit here. Now is when we need it and I think the outcome is going to be something we’ll all be proud of.”
Originally published at https://fightingillini.com on July 3, 2018.