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Illinois’ new AD charged with brightening a bleak sports scene

Perhaps it took longer — by weeks, or even months — than it should have. To be sure, the molasses-slow process of finding a new athletic director frustrated many fans.

But none of that will ever matter again if Illinois got the right guy.

Word spread fast Tuesday evening that Illinois — more than three months after firing Mike Thomas — had reached an agreement with Josh Whitman to lead the school’s bedraggled athletic department through a critical crossroads and into an unknowable future.

Football coach Bill Cubit is on a new two-year deal that is widely believed to be merely a placeholder until Thomas’ successor finds a long-term replacement. Basketball coach John Groce is on the hot seat, his foundering program set to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. The football and women’s basketball programs have been embroiled in off-the-field controversies.

Rarely has the major-sports scene in Champaign looked so bleak.

The lifting will be heavy for Whitman, only 37, after stints as athletic director at Division III schools Wisconsin-La Crosse and, more recently, Washington-St. Louis.

A native of West Lafayette, Ind., Whitman played tight end at Illinois and later with four NFL teams, his professional career ending in 2004. He joined his alma mater’s athletic department in 2005, serving first as coordinator of special projects and later as assistant to then-A.D. Ron Guenther.

Whitman has yet to dip a toe into the harsh waters where millionaire coaches swim like hungry sharks, yet Illini fans will count on him him to be a difference-maker and game-changer. Indeed, it’s a lot to hope for.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com