Bob Asmussen | Does Illinois 'have' what it takes? (2024)

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Talking points Important year

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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman talked to the media for more than two hours Thursday.

The final question of the hourlong Q&A portion summed it all up.

Bottom line: Whitman wants Illinois — his alma mater, where he played college football — to be one of the haves.

“We talk about that extensively here,” Whitman said during his annual roundtable at the Bielfeldt Building.

He used one of the school’s top sports, men’s golf, to illustrate.

“When you get into NCAA tournament play, eventually, they put that little red line on there,” Whitman said. “The first cut, it goes from 30 teams to 15 teams. Then it goes from 15 teams to eight teams.”

The illustration carries over to total sports programs.

“I always think about it,” Whitman said. “If at some point they choose to put that red line on there, we need to make sure that Illinois is in front of the cut line. We know those decisions are going to be driven almost exclusively by football and secondarily by men’s basketball.”

Whitman said the quiet part out loud.

“As we have developed our strategy here over the last several years, we have been very up front internally and with others about the priority those two sports occupy for our program,” Whitman said. “It’s not because we like them more. It’s not because they’re inherently more important to us. It’s because it’s a recognition of the reality of our business and that if at some point that red line gets put on the screen, those sports are going to determine where our program falls relative to that red line. There’s a very real consequence to being below that line that had never existed before.”

Athletic programs have always wanted to be good. But they didn’t face the negative consequences of being a have not.

“If we’ve learned anything over these last five years, it’s that you can’t be guaranteed anything,” Whitman said. “We have to do our best to make sure those two sports go, so that if we ever find ourselves in that place, we’re confident where we’ll land relative to that red line. That has been a primary driver of our strategy really coming out of COVID and will continue to be as we move into this next environment.”

Talking points

Whitman touched on a number of subjects during the annual discussion with reporters that cover the Illinois program. But football and men’s basketball were prominent.

On the job since 2016, Whitman has hired two head football coaches and one in men’s basketball.

The latter, Brad Underwood, has built Illinois into a Big Ten power and is coming off his best season. His team was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the regional final by eventual national champion Connecticut.

On his football hires, Whitman is 1-1. His first pick, Lovie Smith, failed as a college head coach, with no winning seasons in his five years on the job and only one bowl bid. With his second chance, Whitman hired Bret Bielema, a proven Big Ten winner who had a successful seven-year run at Wisconsin. The results have been positive. In three seasons since taking over a broken program, the Illini have gone 18-19 under Bielema, who ended a decade of losing seasons by finishing 8-5 in 2022. His team just missed bowls in the other two seasons.

Whitman is optimistic about the direction of the program.

“Long term, I think we have a tremendous opportunity with a 12-team playoff to access the tournament,” Whitman said. “And that needs to be our objective. Our first step is sustained success. We need to get to a point where those margins that have separated us from victory and defeat are falling on our side (and) we’re in a position where we’ve been to three consecutive bowl games. Those things will begin to happen.”

Important year

Bielema has security at Illinois with a long-term contract. Despite missing a bowl in 2023, his seat is among the coolest of the Big Ten football bosses.

“As you look back over the first three years of Coach Bielema’s tenure, we are three wins short — one win in each of those three years — from being on one of the most impressive three-year runs that our program has seen in a very long time,” Whitman said. “It’s a great reminder for me and for all of us just how thin the margins are between success and failure in this business.”

So, the boss is in Bielema’s corner.

“I remain so bullish about where this football program is headed, so confident in the leadership Coach Bielema continues to demonstrate,” Whitman said. “To be able to go .500 in the regular season (there was a bowl loss) over the first three years of his tenure ... is a starting point, a springboard for where this program can go.

“I continue to be excited about the recruiting that’s occurring in the Smith Center, not only for student-athletes, but for staff.”

Whitman pointed to the team’s ability to develop NFL players, with a first-round pick and two second-round picks in the past two drafts. With the hope for more in 2025.

“I think we’ve got a great mix of returning players and new players,” Whitman said.

The 2024 schedule includes games against likely Top 25 teams Kansas, Penn State, Oregon and Michigan.

The latter game is set for Oct. 19, 100 years and one day after Illinois legend Red Grange scored four touchdowns in 12 minutes against the visiting Wolverines.

This year’s game against Michigan will include a re-dedication of Memorial Stadium. Whitman appreciates the Big Ten setting the game on the corresponding date to the original dedication.

“We talked to them about that years ago and asked them to mark that date,” Whitman said.

Done and done.

Whitman promises a strong buildup to the game, with the Illini wearing throwback uniforms.

“I think our fans will be really excited about it. I’m really excited about it,” Whitman said. “That game against Michigan will certainly be memorable for everybody and hope that we can have a great sellout and special day for everybody.”

Bob Asmussen | Does Illinois 'have' what it takes? (2024)
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