By Sean McDevitt
According to University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman‘s daughter, Tate, his favorite construction vehicle is a bulldozer.
Tate, at five years old, has assigned everyone in the Whitman household a favorite, from color to animal to ice cream. The favorites are set in stone. And in the Whitman house, the bulldozer is Josh’s favorite.
At his annual media roundtable event on June 28, Whitman described how he identifies with his “favorite” in several ways.
“When I think about my role in college athletics, I think we’re generally the bulldozers,” said Whitman at the recent media roundtable. “Our job is to clear the path in front of our coaches and our student-athletes to allow them to go all gas; no breaks all the time.”
Through his leadership over the last year, Whitman has overseen several Illinois athletic programs achieve at a high level, including the men’s basketball team winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2005, the men’s golf team winning the Big Ten Championship for a conference- record seventh consecutive season just to name a few. A total of six teams finished in the Top-25 and 12 participated in the NCAA postseason.
“Our job is to clear the path in front of our coaches and our student-athletes to allow them to go all gas; no breaks all the time.”
– Director of Athletics Josh Whitman
The literal bulldozers
Facilities have also been at the forefront this past year, since the grand opening of the Atkins Golf Club at the University of Illinois and a recent expansion of the Demirjian Indoor Golf Practice Facility to the nearly complete Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center and Rex and Alice A. Martin Softball Training Center.
Also nearing completion is a renovated Richard T. Ubben Basketball Complex. The expansion adds approximately 40,000 square feet to the existing structure while remodeling more than 40,000 square feet of existing space. The practice courts will be finished by the end of summer, with the northside and southside phases finished by early to mid-October. The entire facility should be completed before the start of the season.
Plans are also underway to make incremental improvements to Huff Hall and Memorial Stadium.
At Huff Hall, the old basketball goals will be off the ceiling, the ceiling and walls will be repainted for the first time in a very long time, and a new video board will be in place to enhance the end game experience for fans.
Making improvements to Memorial Stadium and the football gameday experience is always on Whitman’s mind. Of course, doing it in a financially responsible way is also vitally important.
“As we have looked at the post-pandemic world, in order for us to do what I would call our dream house scenario at Memorial Stadium, our estimates are somewhere around $200 million to tackle the east and the south,” Whitman said. “We realize that’s not realistic for us in the near term. So, we’re going to start by making some incremental improvements each year to that facility. Our fans, when they come back in the fall, will see some notable changes.”
Recently, the East Hall has received most of the attention. Televisions in the concourse have been changed to larger flatscreens, the concrete floors have been polished, new epoxy floors have been added in all the restrooms, the lights have been replaced with new LED lighting, and the steel superstructure is now painted navy. The boarded up windows on the east wall are out and replaced with glass, bringing more natural light back into that side of the building.
Memorial Stadium has brand new turf enhancing the safety and playability for student-athletes but also cosmetically bringing a fresh look.
A very positive year
Whitman addressed the business of Illinois athletics, calling it “a very positive year.” Men’s basketball set a record in ticket sales revenue, volleyball posted its second-highest revenue record in the history of the program, and football exceeded the budget in terms of ticket sales, with student ticket sales up over 70%.
Furthermore, the department has pulled in over $30 million in donations in five consecutive years despite the pandemic. With the fiscal year ending July 1, the annual fund is up 15%.
July ends the University-wide With Illinois campaign in which the Athletic Department was a prominent contributor. The goal of the overall campaign was to raise $2.25 billion in gifts and commitments. Although the final numbers are not yet set, the Athletic Department exceeded its individual goal of $300 million by raising north of $320 million towards the With Illinois fundraising total.
“That $320 million comes from over 117,000 different gifts that over 21,000 donors had made,” Whitman said. “Those 21,000 come from 49 different states and more than a dozen countries. During that campaign, at one point, we posted three consecutive years of $40 million or more of new business, which was the first time in our program’s history. And we were successful in securing more than 45 gifts of a million dollars or more.”
Looking back, Whitman is enjoying the trajectory of the Illinois Athletics program.
“There are moments… the Iowa game, men’s golf capturing a Big Ten championship, winning at Kentucky with volleyball that will continue to resonate,” Whitman said. “We can allow ourselves the grace to step back and enjoy those moments and celebrate them, but we cannot ever confuse being pleased with being satisfied.”
In Whitman’s point of view, it’s not just success with one sport, but all the sports all the time.
“There’s all this are we a football school… are we a basketball school or a golf school, nobody cares,” Whitman said. “Everybody celebrates the accomplishments of everybody else, and we are looking out for one another and trying to build on that success. One program, one decision, with our staff, coaches, and student-athletes. They buy into that in a big way And it gives me a lot of confidence about where we’re headed and excitement about our journey to get there.”