Director of AthleticsUniversity of Illinois
Illinois alumnus Josh Whitman was hired as the University’s 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 in the Autonomy 5. In a relatively short time, Whitman’s “We Will Win” mantra and message of unity, optimism, and bold action have rekindled the fire in the hearts of Illini fans everywhere.
Whitman has formulated an aggressive agenda since his hiring. Highlights have included launching the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame, opening construction of a new $79.2 million football performance center scheduled to open prior to the 2019 season, and creating plans for Demirjian Park, a new home for the Illinois soccer and track and field programs opening by 2021. He has also undertaken an ambitious fundraising effort to renovate and expand the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility and is studying the potential addition of Division I hockey to the Fighting Illini sport portfolio.
Whitman has hired six new head coaches, including iconic football coach Lovie Smith, who led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI; Brad Underwood, who has won more than 73 percent of his games in five years as a Division I head coach; and women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey, who arrived in Champaign-Urbana having already been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Other Whitman head coach hires are Chris Tamas for volleyball, Evan Clark with women’s tennis and Nadalie Walsh with women’s gymnastics, all of whom led their respective programs into NCAA postseason play in 2017-18. Whitman also restructured the Illinois men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country programs, bringing those six programs under a single, unified coaching structure led by veteran coach Mike Turk.
Whitman has been a visible presence and frequent speaker at Illini events nationwide. He has canvassed the country, meeting with supporters of the program from coast to coast, which has led to a spike in fundraising. In Whitman’s first two full years at the helm, DIA has generated more than $50 million in donated dollars, highlighted by $20 million toward the football performance center and one of the largest single gifts in DIA history, $7 million from the Demirjian family to create the new stadium and related facilities for soccer and track and field. In total, DIA has received 15 gifts of $1 million or more during Whitman’s tenure. The annual fund, meanwhile, has experienced year-over-year growth in consecutive years for the first time in more than a decade.
Internally, Whitman reorganized the department’s leadership structure and created the Committee on Diversity and Inclusivity, which hosted DIA’s first Diversity Summit in the spring of 2018. He has led a comprehensive effort to develop a new DIA mission statement (Unify. Develop. Inspire. Achieve.) and is working actively to implement that mission statement into DIA’s daily activities. Fiscally, he has also helped return DIA to an operating surplus for the first time in six years.
Since Whitman’s arrival, the competitiveness of the Illinois programs has seen marked improvement. In the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings, Illinois has advanced 18 spots, from 54th in 2015-16 to 36th in 2017-18. In the 2017-18, the 36th place national finish was good for 7th place in the Big Ten. During Whitman’s tenure, Illinois teams have made 18 NCAA postseason appearances, highlighted by 13 teams finishing in the top 16 nationally and five finishing in the nation’s top four. In addition, three Illinois student-athletes have captured individual national championships (wrestler Isaiah Martinez, 2016; men’s gymnast Brandon Ngai, 2016; and men’s gymnast Alex Diab, 2018). In Big Ten competition, the men’s golf program has won three consecutive Big Ten crowns and men’s gymnastics captured the conference title in 2018.
Whitman, a former Academic All-American at Illinois, emphasizes strong performance by the Fighting Illini student-athletes in the classroom as well. In each year of his tenure, student-athletes have posted a combined GPA of above 3.15. Fifteen of the 19 teams, along with more than 60% of the individual student-athletes, earn GPAs above 3.00. In the last two years, Illinois student-athletes have garnered a total of 426 Academic All-Big Ten selections. Teams have also set records for APR scores.
Prior to coming to Illinois, the 40-year-old Whitman spent nearly six years as an athletics director at two universities. He came to Champaign-Urbana following almost two years as director of athletics at Washington University in St. Louis, a nationally recognized NCAA Division III program with 19 varsity sports and approximately 500 student-athletes. During Whitman’s tenure, the program posted seven top-five NCAA finishes, a combined GPA of 3.35, and a graduation rate of 99 percent. Before joining Washington University, Whitman served as the director of athletics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, another of the nation’s leading Division III programs. Combined at those two institutions, Whitman’s teams earned four national titles and 24 top-five team finishes, plus 34 conference championships.
Whitman has two Illinois degrees. He graduated with Bronze Tablet honors in 2001 while earning a bachelor’s degree in finance. In 2008, he graduated summa cum laude from the Illinois College of Law before serving as a judicial law clerk for Judge Michael Kanne on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. From 2005 to 2008, he worked for DIA and former Illini athletics director Ron Guenther in various administrative capacities.
On the gridiron for the Fighting Illini, Whitman was a four-year starting tight end from 1997-2000 and two-time First Team Academic All-American. He then spent parts of four seasons as a player in the National Football League, including stints with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
Prior to embarking on his career in athletics administration, Whitman practiced law in Washington, D.C., with Covington & Burling LLP, a firm with a preeminent sports practice that represents, among other clients, the National Football League.
Whitman grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., and is married to Hope Whitman. Their daughter, Tate, was born in 2016, and their son, Will, was born in July of 2018. He remains a licensed attorney and is a member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. Whitman’s leadership has earned national attention, highlighted in early 2018 when Sports Business Journal named him to their prestigious Forty Under 40 list. In July 2017, Whitman was selected Central Illinois Business Magazine’s Forty Under 40 Man of the Year. The Whitmans have become engaged in several Champaign-Urbana community organizations, including the United Way, Coaches vs. Cancer, and the Tom Jones Challenger League. He and Hope are also significant contributors to the I FUND.