Whitman addresses NCAA, Big Ten cancellations

Illinois+athletic+director+Josh+Whitman+at+a+Feb.+18%2C+2016%2C+news+conference+in+Chicago.

Photo Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman at a Feb. 18, 2016, news conference in Chicago.

By Gabby Hajduk, Sports Editor

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said last Thursday was the hardest day for him since he became athletic director. While Whitman’s usual communication with Illini student athletes is positive or even celebratory, he was forced to tell many of them devastating news that could change their future as athletes. 

The Big Ten announced Thursday all conference and non-conference competitions would be canceled for the remainder of the academic year. The conference followed up on Friday with an announcement stating all organized team activities would be suspended until April 6 when a re-evaluation will take place. 

“You know, occasionally, every once in a while, those of us involved in this every day, we spend a big part of our life treating these contests as the most important thing that we have, and we put a lot of energy and a lot of effort into building competitive successful programs,” Whitman said. “But every once in a while something happens that helps to bring everything into focus, and we’ve had a few of those events happen here over the last several months.” 

The growing COVID-19 pandemic is the latest situation to make everyone in the sports world use the phrase, “This is bigger than sports.” And while Whitman agrees the health and safety of his student athletes and athletic staff is at the forefront right now, it doesn’t soften the blow of teams hearing the fate of their season is no longer in their control. 

That’s why Whitman held a teleconference with student athletes and any parents who wanted to join to explain the current situation and provide his understanding and support for each athlete. While part of Whitman’s job is to bring a sense of calm and relief, he doesn’t have all the answers right now — no one does — but he’s made it clear Illini athletics is still a united front.

“The message to them really was just one of appreciation, support, empathy,” Whitman said. “Again, I have a great understanding of what has gone into preparing for these opportunities, and to suddenly, for reasons out of their control, have the opportunities taken away is — the word I used yesterday is true — it’s heartbreaking. And so we want to be there for them as they work through this and their own emotions, and we will continue to provide that support.”

These decisions weren’t on Whitman alone, though. Between Wednesday and Friday, Whitman said there were about 36 straight hours of meetings with the NCAA, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, fellow athletic directors and Illini coaches and staff across the athletics program. 

Whitman praises Illinois’ staff as a “really talented, dedicated group” and was “unbelievably impressed” with Warren’s leadership. 

Warren has been in the head position for only two and a half months but has handled this uncharted territory with poise. Whitman said he appreciated how Warren heard everyone’s voice and created a collaborative environment when it came time to make the tough decisions. 

Whitman’s job now is to piggyback off Warren’s leadership and continue to navigate the fluid situation. While most student athletes will return home, Whitman said the athletic department will accommodate those who are unable to leave campus at this time. 

For now, the athletic department will keep providing its usual support whether that be access to weight rooms, athletic training rooms and academics services. However, there will be limited access and hours to these services in order to keep them sanitary and keep the staff healthy as well. 

It’s difficult to focus on anything right now but COVID-19, the abrupt ending to many winter and all spring sports and the question marks left of where the ceiling was for many successful teams. But, Whitman was able to give some reflection on the growth of Illini athletics this year, prior to the pandemic. 

In the fall, Illinois’ football, volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country teams all advanced past the regular season and several winter sports were set to join them. 

Illinois basketball was days away from being selected to the March Madness tournament. The Illini wrestling team had seven athletes qualify for the NCAA Championships. The Illini women’s gymnastics team was about a week away from the Big Ten Championships. The swim and dive team was prepared to send 11 Illini to the CSCAA National Invitational Championships. 

“I think that we’re in a good place,” Whitman said. “This was a really important step in the right direction, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball. I think our fans are excited. I think our community is excited. I know our student athletes are excited.” 

“We talk all the time about winners wanting to be around other winners, and you’re feeling the culture within the athletic program evolve and change, and there’s now an expectation that I think is being passed around amongst the student-athletes, amongst the coaches. There’s positive peer pressure. ‘Hey, look what we’re doing! What are you doing?’ And I think that’s a really good place for us to be.”

@gabby_h11

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