Josh Whitman’s Message To Illini Fans: “We’re Going To Find Ways To Connect”

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Not unlike most to all folks trying to deal with the emotions of these local, statewide and national in-home shut-in mandates due to the concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus virus epidemic, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman certainly isn’t alone.

However, the leader of the University of Illinois athletics department did find some alone time in his converted home basement workout room to shoot an emotional 10-minute video on social media discussing what he and his staff plan to do in order to provide a level of comfort, stability and confidence to all Illini fans despite still abiding by the responsible social distancing protocols.

“Now when we all have to retreat to our respective homes, we all feel like something is missing,” Whitman said in the video. “We’re trying to find ways to connect. One of the goals we have in the weeks and months or however long it may be is we’re going to try to connect.”

The video, which included several moments where Whitman’s voice tone gets emotional, included a tour of Whitman’s converted basement/workout room of his home where he has a Peloton bike, treadmill and a weight bench provided to him by Ron Turner, Whitman’s former head football coach at Illinois and a motivational sign given to him by A.J. Rickard, who was Whitman’s head football coach at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“Right now, we have a lot of challenge in front of us, not just in athletics, this is way better than athletics. We got challenges as a university, as a broader community, as a nation and really as an entire world,” Whitman said. “So let’s keep our eye on the ball. Let’s look out for one another. Keep yourselves healthy. Keep your neighbors healthy and keep your family healthy. Make good decisions. It’s amazing how something like this can put so many other things in perspective.”

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood (right) gets a hug from Athletic Director Josh Whitman after the win against Ohio State at Value City Arena.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood (right) gets a hug from Athletic Director Josh Whitman after the win against Ohio State at Value City Arena.Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

Whitman, a former starting tight end at Illinois on the football field, was hired as Illinois’ 14th permanent director of athletics on February 17, 2016. At the time of his hiring, Whitman, then 37 years old, was the youngest athletics director at any Power 5 Conference school. Some highlights of Whitman’s short tenure at his alma mater include the opening construction of a new $79.2 million indoor Smith Family Football Facility, hiring six head coaches at Illinois including Brad Underwood and Lovie Smith, overseeing the fundraising effort to renovate and expand the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility and the launching of exploratory committees to potentially add of Division I hockey to the Illinois sports landscape.

Now, in the midst of this unprecedented worldwide health crisis, Whitman’s new goal is to make sure Illini fans still feel connected to their favorite program and university despite the constant anxiety over the disease.

“Now, the other thing that has been incredibly reassuring is the role that sports plays in our world,” Whitman said. “There’s a lot of things that have changed here in the last two weeks. But the absence of the games, whether you’re talking about the NCAA tournament, NBA basketball, spring training, The Masters, has left this void. It’s been a great reminder of the power sports has to bring people together. We know that times are tough out there. We know people are losing their jobs, losing their savings, losing their businesses. We know that people are sick. We know that some people are dying. In the midst of all that, we’re going to try and provide a little ray of hope. A reminder of what is so great about life. What is so great about sports. The power of memories. We’re going to give you some things to look forward to.”

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