Josh Whitman: Five Impactful Years And Many More to Come
By Sean McDevitt
There he is, posting a photo of himself with a beard full of ice as he keeps up his tradition of getting a long run in before away basketball games, no matter the temperature.
There he is helping to break ground on the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center.
There he is posing with his daughter, Tate, on National Girls and Women Sports Day.
There he is marching with his student-athletes.
There he is hugging basketball players after the game in the tunnel.
There he is.
Josh Whitman, Athletic Director of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Illinois, is seemingly everywhere. It is not a surprise to catch Whitman attending multiple athletic events per week and sometimes more than one a day. From basketball to volleyball, tennis to gymnastics, and every sport in-between, Whitman is there cheering his student-athletes on to victory.
He’s there because being the school’s AD where he was a student-athlete himself, earned two degrees, and where he feels like home is personal. Illinois athletics is personal. Competition is personal. As he celebrates five years at the helm of Illinois athletics, every win, loss, failure, and success is personal.
After five years in the job, he still cuts a commanding figure. He may have transformed his football body to one more accustomed to running long distances, but he still looks good in a suit and tie.
Even if, occasionally, he has icicles on his face.
Whitman grew up in the shadow of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, but saw attending the University of Illinois as a way to be his own man. His parents are both teachers, and reading a book was just as important to him as reading his playbook. As a student-athlete, he was an Academic All-American and graduated with Bronze Tablet honors in 2001 and summa cum laude from the Illinois College of Law in 2008.
Since being named Athletic Director on February 17, 2016, Whitman has overseen tremendous growth in facilities, steady improvement in athletic success, and implemented a new culture throughout the DIA.
Creating a winning, inclusive culture was one of the core tenets of Whitman’s first days as AD. Warren Hood, who has the unique position of being Josh Whitman’s supervisor during his Law School intern days and today working directly for him in his role as Deputy Director of Athletics, was a part of the cultural shift at DIA.
“I don’t think you can have success without great culture,” said Hood. “People want to be treated well. They want to feel that it’s inclusive and that they’re a part of it. When they’re part of something bigger than themselves, I think they come in every day, and they’re more willing and wanting to put in that extra time, put in that extra thought of how to be successful than if they’re treated poorly.”
Inheriting an athletic program with significant challenges, Whitman addressed it by creating a Chief Integrity Officer and tapped long-time DIA compliance officer Ryan Squire to head it up.
Squire said, “When we were envisioning what our leadership team and our overall organizational structure might look like, we came up with this chief integrity officer role that would encompass all of our student-athlete support units under one umbrella.”
In this role, he works with major student-athlete wellness units, including Academic Services, Compliance, Nutrition, Sports Medicine, and Strength and Conditioning. He coordinates risk management and integrity initiatives as well as the implementation of education, policies, and procedures to facilitate compliance with federal, state, and institutional laws and regulations.
“The chief integrity officer title might be a little unusual in college athletics,” said Squire. “I think it just showed Josh’s vision and his creativity to create this kind of role and send a message as to what our culture was going to look like in these student support areas.”
Whitman’s goal was to create a culture where people feel empowered and can speak up. He formed the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which hosted DIA’s first Diversity Summit in the spring of 2018 and has played a prominent role in helping student-athletes and staff navigate complicated social justice initiatives and issues.
Squire said, “Our successes have been creating credibility and trust with university leadership, not to mention the community and our fan base, to demonstrate that we’re going to do things the right way, as far as how we treat our student-athletes and how we operate with integrity.”
There’s little doubt over Whitman’s time as AD, Illinois athletics has made significant inroads in building and updating their athletic facilities. The most well-known is the $79.2 million, 110,000-square-foot Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center. Additionally, other noteworthy construction plans include Demirjian Park, the new home for the Illinois soccer and track and field programs that will be fully open in early 2021; breaking ground on the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center, scheduled to open in 2022; and beginning work on the Rex and Alice A. Martin Softball Training Center, also scheduled for completion in 2022. Whitman orchestrated the former Stone Creek Golf Club’s acquisition as part of a $15 million, multi-faceted gift of real estate to the University to create the Atkins Golf Club at the University of Illinois.
Having state-of-the-art facilities is one part of building competitive programs that compete at the highest levels in all 19 sports. His competitive nature has been at the forefront of these last five years, and that has carried over into his athletic programs. He takes it all personally.
Howard Milton, Senior Associate Athletics Director, Development, has seen it first-hand.
“His first words out of his mouth were ‘you need to know this is personal’,” said Milton. “And since then, that’s how we’ve gone about our business. His competitive nature is that he wants Illinois to be the best. So, let’s not get confused by the Bronze Tablet, book-loving, only-child. This is a competitor that wants nothing more than to be the best at everything. The most wins, the best grades, the highest levels of engagement… everything.”
In 2018, DIA announced a $20 million donation from the H.D. Smith Foundation, led by brothers Dale and Chris Smith, to name the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center in honor of their parents. Whitman led the effort to secure a $7 million gift from the Demirjian family to create the new stadium and related facilities for soccer and track and field. He worked with long-time donors Susie Atkins and Rex Martin to garner separate $3 million naming gifts for new indoor training facilities for baseball and softball, respectively. In total, DIA has received 27 gifts of $1 million or more during Whitman’s tenure. From 2017 through 2020, Illinois Athletics experienced year-over-year growth in each of the four years for the first time in more than a decade.
While those numbers are impressive, the highlight of the last five years is more about family in Howard Milton’s eyes.
“A personal highlight for me is watching him as a husband and father,” said Milton. “I really enjoy that. Probably because I’m not in that chapter of my life anymore, and it’s fun to watch that chapter and remember that chapter and to have someone go through it. I know there will be days when you might have spit up on your blazer, or you’ve got to run home to read a book to put somebody to sleep. I appreciate all that because that’s how I want to go about my work.”
If you pay attention to Whitman’s time as AD, one thing becomes crystal clear: he cares immensely about the student-athletes and their programs.
“I hope people see it, but he just cares so much,” said Hood. “How much he cares about people, our student-athletes, and about the program is on his shoulders every day.”
Milton agrees, “It’s tough to show caring at that level, all the time, but he’s a caring person. And I think we’ve gone about our work with much more authenticity. And we go about our work a lot more passionately and with a level of compassion and humility. I think our organization reflects our leader.”
What you see is what you get with Josh Whitman. Over and over again, words like integrity, transparency, and authenticity are used when talking about him.
“What people see is the real Josh,” said Squire. “What I appreciate most about him as a leader is that he’s so collaborative. Whenever there’s a decision to be made, he wants everyone to be involved and everyone to speak up. When you have somebody who’s really intelligent and who really cares a lot and really works hard, and never asks us to do anything that he doesn’t do, he leads by example. It just makes us all want to work hard for him to get to where we want to go.”
Under Josh Whitman’s leadership, these last five years have seen Illinois Athletics reach new heights, but the journey is never complete. It could be argued it’s just getting started.
“Anytime you have a leadership change, the first two or three years are very difficult,” said Hood. “You look at our first couple of years we transitioned football, basketball, and the volleyball programs. Now we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor. I think the next few years could be the most exciting in a long, long time. The best is yet to come.”
Milton agreed, “People can count on us challenging for Big Ten championships. We are on that path, and it’s through his leadership.”
The next five years in college athletics are going to be transformative. Whether it’s cultural shifts in the world or “name, image, likeness,” where student-athletes can capitalize on themselves, we will see a new and different college athletics landscape. There’s pending litigation regarding amateurism and potentially new student-athlete transfer rules that will change how students view opportunities.
“I think we’re a little bit on pins and needles about how things are going to look five years from now because it could be significantly different, but that’s where strong leadership comes in,” said Squire. “We know whatever happens concerning those seismic issues in college athletics, we’ll be well-positioned because we’re already talking about it. We’re already out in front of some of these issues, and we’re ready for whatever comes. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got a great team and a great leader at the top, so we’ll be prepared.”
Originally published at https://fightingillini.com on February 17, 2021.