CHAMPAIGN – In telling the modern day tale of Illini sports, the low point – and it was an epic, embarrassing low point – came at the end of July 2015 in a hotel ballroom in Chicago.
That’s where then-head football coach Tim Beckman, ignoring media coaching that begged him not to do it, stood at a hot microphone and stumbled his way through an awkward reference to Oskee, as in “Oskee Wow-Wow.”
An articulate genius can’t adequately explain what “Oskee Wow-Wow” means to Illini fans, how it can be both a song title and a unifying cheer. So it was futile for Beckman to even attempt it in front of an audience that only wanted to know if his porous defense planned to tackle anyone.
In that moment Beckman offered a public demonstration of his inability to communicate and to think on his feet. It made astonished on-lookers wonder: Who decided this dope should be the CEO of your football operation?
That person – AD Mike Thomas – was standing at the back of the ballroom.
Rarely has an athletic department looked so lost, so hopeless and so foolish.
The carnage would come quickly.
One month later, Beckman was fired. An investigation into his treatment of players had revealed mistakes the university could not hide from. Ten weeks later Thomas was fired. They used other reasons, but the fact that he had hired Beckman in 2012 should have been reason enough.
Scandalous accusations by former Illini women’s basketball players and a well-intentioned but awkward transition to Bill Cubit as football coach followed.
None of this was Cubit’s fault. He should be remembered fondly for bringing a bit of dignity back to the head coach’s office.
Mercifully, at a time when the university’s chancellor, athletics director and football coach all had the word “interim” as part of their titles, the school pushed forward with overdue remedies.
The single most transformative moment in recent Illini sports memory happened six months after Beckman’s gruesome appearance at Big Ten football media day. That’s the day in February of 2016 that Josh Whitman was hired to run the athletic department.
That’s the day the clouds finally started to lift.
In the 13 months since, Whitman has methodically gone about the business of putting his revenue-generating sports on a winning trajectory.
Almost immediately after being hired he addressed the sport that matters most, football, by naming Lovie Smith as head coach.
Whitman waited a full season to tackle basketball and when the time came, he moved decisively. In a period of exactly 12 days he fired men’s coach John Groce, fired women’s coach Matt Bollant, hired new men’s coach Brad Underwood and hired new women’s coach Nancy Fahey.
On Friday, as Fahey’s introductory press conference wound to a close, Whitman stood calmly in his dark pinstripe suit, the kind one would wear to a funeral or wedding.
Ironically, that’s basically what he has been presiding over.
“It’s been, probably the most intense two to three weeks of my professional career,” he said. “A lot of balls in the air…but I feel really good about where each of those projects has ended up.”
Whitman is emerging nationally as a rising star and as others hear about the way he identified coaching candidates, confirmed their interest and quickly, quietly brokered deals, it won’t be long before his star rises even higher.
In Whitman, coaches have found the perfect ally.
“Trust is everything,” Fahey said Friday, talking about her new boss. “He’s a man who has a vision, a plan. He does it the right way and he’s going to act. You won’t have to wait. He’s going to move.”
Whitman contemplated the restructuring of his major sports, including the hiring of a new volleyball coach.
“These are the moments that I prove my worth,” he said. “This is a chance for me to show that the program is headed in the right direction, to surround us with the right people and the right leaders.
“On the one hand it’s been incredibly challenging and on the other hand it’s been unbelievably fulfilling to have the opportunity to bring new leadership and vision to the program.”
This was so overdue. This was so badly needed.
The feeling in that Chicago ballroom was one of despair. Now, thanks to the hiring of a visionary who believes Illinois has a right to sit at the head table, a new kind of excitement is building.
Contemplating the first weekend that wouldn’t be filled with critical phone calls, mad dashes on a private jet or hammering out multi-million dollar deals, Whitman smiled.
“I’m going to sleep a little bit and hold my daughter,” he said. “I might not even shave tomorrow. I’m looking forward to a little downtime.”
After 13 dramatic months, he at least deserves that.