ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF)–Chants of I-L-L, I-N-I could be heard in downtown Rockford Tuesday evening. That’s because the Fighting Illini Tailgate Tour came to our city.
Illini fans turned out at the Prairie Street Brewing Company for a meet and greet with Illini director of athletics Josh Whitman and men’s assistant basketball coaches Chester Frazier and Geoff Alexander.
Fans got T-Shirts, and autographs, and had their pictures taken with the basketball team’s Big Ten championship trophy.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Whitman and pick his brain about all things Fighting Illini.
The first thing to know about Whitman is he loves his job.
“It’s a thrill of a lifetime. It’s been such a humbling, gratifying experience to be in this position and have the opportunity to lead this program at my alma mater, now in my seventh year.”
And he has several more years to come since Whitman signed a four-year contract extension this spring.
“It’s incredibly humbling just to know that people are endorsing the work that we’ve undertaken over these last six and a half years. To have the chance to continue doing that for the foreseeable future and do it with people that I care a lot about and obviously at a place that I care a lot about it means the world to me.”
One of Whitman’s first decisions when he took over as athletic director seven years ago was to hire Brad Underwood as the men’s basketball coach. That move looks brilliant now considering the basketball program has the best conference record in the Big 10 over the last three seasons.
“I just give him (Underwood) so much credit for the vision that he brought to the table,” said Whitman.”He’s very comfortable with his identity. He knows what he wants. He’s patient, and he’s built now one of the best programs in the country.”
Whitman also has high hopes for the future of the football program now that he’s had a year and a half to work with Bret Bielema.
“Everything that he’s (Bielema) doing right now is going to ultimately lend itself to the success that we all know we want to see at Memorial Stadium.”
There has never been a more challenging time to be an athletic director at a major university the way the college landscape keeps changing with things like Name, Image and Likeness, the transfer portal and legalized sports gambling. I asked Whitman if college sports will come out the other end of all this okay.
“College sports is part of American Society, and it has been for 120 years. I don’t see college sports going away. I do think college sports could start to look different.”
“It makes my job very difficult, very interesting. I think like most things in life it’s a question of the lens that you choose to look through, and I see it as a great opportunity. When would you rather be an athletic director than right now? You’ve got a chance to participate in this reshaping of this incredible thing that is college sports. That’s the way that I choose to approach it every day.”