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Sports Saturday

Illini AD doubles down: ‘I’m more confident in Lovie Smith than I’ve ever been’

Josh Whitman’s second signature hire was basketball coach Brad Underwood. Whitman says he wouldn’t trade his pair for anybody’s. His own reputation hangs in the balance.

Penn State v Illinois
Lovie Smith before a 2018 home game.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Athletic director Josh Whitman arrived at Illinois full of energy, charisma and big ideas. Big idea No. 1 was more like a done deal: bringing in Lovie Smith — who’d been gone from the college ranks for more than two decades — as his first coaching hire.

That was March 2016. Thirty-six football games — and 27 losses — later, Whitman, a former tight end at the school, is publicly doubling down on that bet.

“I’m more confident in Lovie Smith than I’ve ever been,” he said. “The more time I spend with him, the more impressed I am and the more enthusiastic I am not only with him, but with the future of our program.”

Whitman’s second signature hire was, of course, basketball coach Brad Underwood, who, in two seasons at the school, is 26-39. More clearly than in Smith’s case, Underwood at least appears to have his program on the rise.

An AD’s reputation hangs in the balance.

“I wouldn’t trade our two guys for anybody’s guys,” Whitman said. “I’m thrilled to have them both.”

Whitman has a supporter and fan in Blackhawks president John McDonough, to whom Whitman, only 41, has reached out for professional advice since accepting the job. McDonough, 66, spoke early last year to a gathering of all Illini coaches, Smith and Underwood included. Whitman and McDonough have gotten together at the United Center about a half-dozen times.

“I like Josh a lot,” McDonough said. “He’s high-energy, has a strong work ethic, is very charismatic, is interested, incredibly curious, has a strong presence. He’s indefatigable.

“I think the world of him. Our conversations are very candid. There’s not much fluff to him; he’s very real. But there is a charisma off him, and he’s a really hard worker — 24 hours isn’t enough for him — and he loves the action.”

McDonough names hiring as “the most important executive skill” and sees a parallel in where Illinois is now and is trying to get to with its football and basketball programs, and where the Blackhawks — drastically changed from a few years ago — are and are trying to get to.

Whitman also has studied successful turnarounds made at the college level. Wisconsin’s emergence — first in football, then in basketball — starting in the early 1990s is one in particular that Whitman notes.

“When we get to where we’re going, we’ll be so much more appreciative because of where we’ve come from,” he said. “That humility, that appreciation, is pretty powerful.”

McDonough is willing to bet on an Illini turnaround, too.

“Josh is a good athletic director,” he said. “I think he’s going to be a great athletic director.”