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Hiring an athletic director from Division III shows how far Illinois has fallen

Josh Whitman might turn out to be the greatest athletic director in the history of the University of Illinois. He might be the right person to turn around what has become a mess of an athletic program.

But the fact that he is coming from Division III Washington University and before that Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse doesn’t exactly stir the blood, does it?

Whitman’s reported hiring is more a reflection of Illinois’ sad status than it is his ability to do the job.

Besides Whitman, Illinois interviewed the athletic directors of Northern Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan and Florida Atlantic, as well as Maryland’s deputy athletic director. The Illini apparently thought they were being relegated to the Mid-American Conference.

Many of us have come from humble beginnings. But when you choose a Division III athletic director out of a shallow, luke-warm pool, it’s proof that your school is in as bad shape as it looks.

Illinois has an interim chancellor because the previous chancellor resigned amid reports she had used a personal email account to handle sensitive school business, among other issues. Illinois’ football coach was fired because the school determined he had mistreated players. His replacement is likely a short-timer. The athletic director was canned because of what the interim chancellor called “distractions.’’ And it certainly is distracting when former women basketball players sue the school for racial discrimination and bad treatment.

The men’s basketball program is an unqualified disappointment.

When Illinois hired – stole, snatched, swiped? — John Groce from mid-major Ohio University in 2012, I asked him if he was surprised at the skepticism over the Illini’s choice of a coach. That led to grumbling in the crowd of 200 Illinois fans who were allowed into the introductory press conference. Groce said there are always skeptics in life.

The next question came from a reporter who prefaced his question with, “I’m sure you want to prove all these skeptics in the Chicago area wrong …”

You tell me how Groce has worked out.

The same stumbling point that came into play with his hiring is the same stumbling point that faced Illinois as it searched for an athletic director: It’s not considered a great job nationally.

And with the athletic department in a state of disrepair, the challenges were even more severe this time. That’s how a Division III athletic director, even if he’s a former Illini football player, becomes the boss.

Whitman might be great. He’ll have to be.