CHICAGO — When Illinois hired Josh Whitman as athletic director five months ago, he needed no research to learn what kind of football program he inherited.
He played in it from 1997-2000 as a four-year starting tight end. Later, from afar — through parts of four NFL seasons, law school and eventually athletic administration — he kept his eye on the Illini.
For those of us not as well-versed in Illinois history, here’s what Whitman saw:
» One outright Big Ten championship in 31 seasons.
» Two major bowl games in 30 seasons.
» Just one week ranked in the national Top 10 in 24 seasons.
» No first-team All-America or All-Big Ten picks in four seasons.
It would have been easy for this young (37) and first-time major-college A.D. (he came from Division III Washington University in St. Louis) to ride out the final year of coach Bill Cubit’s contract this season.
Easy ... and a waste of precious time.
So by noon on his first official day at work, Whitman fired the 62-year-old Cubit just before spring practice was to start. Less than 48 hours later, he hired former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, who hasn’t walked a college sideline in 21 years.
“Coaching football is coaching football,’’ Whitman said in an interview after Smith completed his first formal interview at Big Ten media days. “Lovie has embraced everything about it. He has been tremendous.’’
I’m not sure Smith embraced this week’s media swarm as much as he endured it. But he hardly was taken aback by it, having gone 89-87 as an NFL coach and led the Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl.
He’ll use those NFL connections to start his rebuild at Illinois.
“One message I’ve gotten is, ‘Lovie, we already know you,’ ” Smith said. “ ‘You’ve been in our homes on Sundays.’ ’’
That the average Illinoisan can pick the Illini coach out of a crowd is progress.
“The enthusiasm from our fan base right now is unbelievable,’’ Whitman said. “To see the smiles on faces and know there is hope for our program has been incredibly uplifting.’’
Whitman’s answer for why he shook up Illinois football was simple. If you keep hiring mid-major coaches without championship credentials, you’ll likely get middling results.
“We recognized we are involved in major-college football and there are certain things that are necessary to compete,’’ Whitman said. “It was time for us to send a message that we grasp what’s necessary.
“We are prepared to do what’s necessary to get us to the top of the heap.’’
Man, is that refreshing: An athletic director who actually wants to kick some butt and will spend money — Smith got a six-year deal with a guarantee of $21 million — on people who have done it.
“The Big Ten quickly has become a coaches’ league,’’ Whitman said. “For us to compete, you need a coach who can stand up and hold his own in a very crowded space. Lovie brings instant credibility.’’
Whitman knows Big Ten coaches.
He played for Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst in 2001 with the San Diego Chargers. During his playing career, college and pro, he also crossed paths with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.
Whitman told his administration within a week of being hired that changing the direction of Illinois football was past due.
“They didn’t blink,’’ he said. “They said, ‘If this is something you think is important, this is what we’ve hired you to do, and we trust your judgment.’ ’’
The bold move has paid off already in season-ticket sales. Illini officials say they have sold 4,000 since Smith’s hire — a 16 percent increase — including 1,000 to first-time buyers. Student sales have topped 1,000, a mark usually not hit until classes start in late August.
Smith made no promises on how many wins Illinois will produce this season but noted: “We realize we have to put a better product on the field. It’s as simple as that.’’
For Whitman, success is top of mind, and it shows through his new athletic department tag line: “We Will Win.’’
Nebraska fans will get an in-person look at the Illinois football remodel when the Illini come to Lincoln on Oct. 1. Will Illinois win like it did last year in Champaign?
“The most important word in that three-word phrase is ‘will,’ ’’ Whitman said. “It implies a level of expectation that we are done ‘hoping’ and done ‘aspiring’ and done ‘wanting.’
“We are in a phase where we want to start ‘doing.’ ’’