CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman is back to work, brainstorming ideas on how to proceed after fall sports were cancelled.
Whitman said he met separately with the football, soccer, volleyball, and men’s and women’s cross country teams to have a conversation about what is happening and what will happen moving forward after the Big Ten postponed all fall sports on Tuesday. There was a 90-minute call with over 400 people, including student-athletes and their families, where over 75 questions were asked.
According to Whitman, the two biggest questions revolve around the spring and eligibility.
“We intend to continue to evaluate that,” Whitman said about a potential spring season during a Zoom call Wednesday. “We believe that’s a very real possibility for the return of competition in our fall sports. We’re actively studying that. I think what’s really important to me, and I think to all of our athletic directors, is making sure that is a meaningful, substantive opportunity. If we’re going to ask our student-athletes to use a year of their eligibility to participate, then it’s got to be worth it for them.”
As for the question of eligibility, the Illinois administration is awaiting direction from the NCAA.
Illinois football head coach Lovie Smith held meetings with his team, as well as a captains’ meeting. One of his concerns regarding potentially playing in the spring is the physical toll it will have on the players, potentially playing two seasons in one calendar year.
“Of course, everybody wants to play football as soon as possible,” Smith said. “I think we can come up with a plan for the spring. For me, it’s coming up with a plan for the spring and the fall.”
Playing two seasons in under 12 months is something that hasn’t been done before. Despite the uncertainty, he believes the decision was made in the best interest of the student-athletes.
”I’m aware of the conferences that still have a schedule, that are getting ready to play,” Smith said. “I’m sure they have their reasons for it. I trust our decision makers on why we’re not playing.”
As for Whitman, what’s done is done. It’s time to focus on the future. He believes that he owes that to the student-athletes and the staff.
”There are people who spend a lot of time complaining about where we are and there are a lot of other people who get busy trying to develop solutions,” Whitman said. “We have to be in that latter group.”
Nobody is going through this difficult time alone. While football has been at the center of the conversation, Whitman stressed that all fall sports have been impacted by this decision.
“I have continually been impressed and inspired by our student-athletes,” Whitman noted. “Their resiliency in the face of this experience has never been more evident than it was yesterday or than it was in the spring when I talked to those student-athletes. They will persevere. They will get back to work the same as we all did today. They will rally around each other.”
But as for football, Smith knows that ultimately it will be back.
”Eventually we’re going to play football,” Smith said, “and I can’t wait to do that.”