Central Illinois Business Magazine
AN ILLINI FAVORITE          October 2017


Exceptional via hard work


University of Illinois Athletic Director, Josh Whitman, left, his daughter, Tate Whitman and wife, Hope Whitman are seen here at a university function. Photo by Mark Jones/Illinois Athletics

Excellence is not born from balance, Josh Whitman said on a hot day last summer.

It was quite a profound statement in what was expected to be a typical interview. The statement was an epiphany of sorts, and a sign that typical was nowhere to be found in the presence of this 39-year-old hard-working and exceptional young professional.

Whitman was recently selected as Central Illinois Business magazine's tenth Man of the Year for Forty Under 40, 2017, and he was ready to be interviewed. There was no sweat on his brow and no tension on his face, even though he had just come in from outside where Central Illinois temperatures were sky-rocketing to a level only comfortable to the corn growing in the near-by UI agricultural plot.

He flashed a light-bulb smile and regarded the room with clear and sharp bright blue eyes. Whitman could give lessons on powerful but not intimidating body language, eye-contact and a firm but welcoming handshake.

"That's right. If you are going to be exceptional, you will not have balance. Balance is such a buzz-word," he said with a smile and headshake at the very idea.

It makes sense, doesn't it? Think about the word, "exception," and it conjures up other terms like, "outlier on a bell curve," or "the road untraveled." One word it does not bring to mind is "balance." Those of you reading this have to know something: Whitman will make you think. He challenges us to step-up our own game, if you will, no matter if that game is tennis, an economics class or writing an article. He expects no less of himself, as well.

He is a committed director of University of Illinois athletes. He is intensely focused on their best interests, as well as those of the university and its alumni and fans.

"Our athletes are pursuing excellence. Athletics is not any different than other pursuits, like those in the lab or the classroom. This is their opportunity. We have world-class athletes here at the University of Illinois," he said.

He attributes his success to focus and hard work.

Kent Brown, associate athletics director-media relations, University of Illinois athletics said Whitman is a breath of fresh air. He said the environment in the athletic office is now more upbeat and positive, and smiles are more common now than they have been in a while.

"He has the best interest of this department at the forefront. His decisions are based on what's best for the program, not what will make people happy," Brown said.

"I take a lot of pride in making decisions. I truly believe you make your own deal," he said as he leaned forward with his tall and lean frame. Behind him are helmets and other athletic mementos stored as visual memories from his journey in life thus far. "That is my helmet from Harrison High School in West Lafayette," he said while pointing out the Raiders' gridiron headgear.

It all started in Indiana

Whitman was a standout athlete early on.

"An interesting fact you may not know about me is although I played college and professional football, as a young kid, I dreamed about being a professional baseball player," he said.

He also knew his power was football. To him is it was clear and he had a plan.

"The plan was that I had to figure out a way to pay for college," he said.

He didn't want that burden to be on his parents, Mark and Mary Beth Whitman, both teachers. He wanted to make his own way, and he wanted to give that to them.

Success on the field, in the classroom and the practice of law

After his career as an Illini stand-out, he had a stint in the NFL, after which he enrolled in the Illinois College of Law. While in law school, he clerked under federal judges Michael P. McCusky and Michael Stephen Kanne. When he graduated summa cum laude, he was off to our nation's capital as an attorney.

"In 2010, only one year after arriving, I left Covington & Burling LLP- one of the nation's most highly regarded law firms located in Washington, DC- to become the athletic director at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I had no experience in Division III, had little background in leadership, knew no one in La Crosse, and took a 50 percent cut in pay, but I needed to follow my passion, and I believed in myself," he said.

Athletic director was the dream

Whitman was later named AD of Washington University in St. Louis in 2014, before coming back to Champaign-Urbana as UI AD. In the meantime, while in St. Louis, he met his wife, Hope, when they were set-up on a blind date. She is a basketball hall of famer from Drury University.

"We went to the Braggin' Rights game in 2014. We had a whirlwind romance," he said.

Then, in 2016, Whitman had the chance to come back to a place he had established himself on so many levels, but this time as director of athletics, a job he had hoped to acquire all along.

"When traveling a career path, make professional decisions with an eye toward differentiating yourself from the other (sometimes hundreds) of people who will pursue the same opportunities as you. How do you make yourself stand out from the crowd" he asked.

Family evolves and grows

Almost a year ago, the Whitmans welcomed baby Tate Elizabeth into their family. When asked if he had baby pictures, he jumped up as if on a spring to retrieve photos of the adorable baby girl with the cherubic face.

Family is obviously important and Whitman likes spend time with them in his free time. He also enjoys working out. The Whitman family is extremely community conscious and very involved.

"My wife and I support a number of local community organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Coaches vs. Cancer, and the Tom Jones Challenger Baseball League. I am a frequent speaker at various community activities, including Rotary and Kiwanis events, among others," Whitman said.

Whitman evolves, too

When asked what the biggest challenge he's faced in his career, Whitman gets right to the point.

"Learning to be an effective leader. You can read and study leadership for years, but until you have the opportunity to practice actual leadership, it is difficult to truly hone the skill. It is a skill that is never fully formed - I continually work to develop into a better leader," he said.

"Josh Whitman is one of the brightest rising stars in collegiate athletics. A former student-athlete for the Fighting Illini, Josh set the goal to one day become the Illini director of athletics. I know I feel like we have the smartest person in the room when we are represented by Josh. The bold hiring of Lovie Smith as the Illini football coach gave fans everywhere immediate hope that the program could once again compete for championships. This came after a particularly dark period," Brown said.

Brown said Whitman's "We will win!" mantra is the new rallying cry for Illinois athletics.

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