“Just wait,” said Josh Whitman. “We’re going to write one of the great stories in the history of college athletics.”
Illinois’ athletic director, then in his third year — second full year — on the job, was speaking to a crowd of loyal supporters of the Orange and Blue at a small bar in downtown New York. The next day, the Fighting Illini, led by a pair of freshmen named Trent Frazier and Mark Smith, would open the 2018 Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“Just have patience,” Whitman told them.
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, Illinois lost to Iowa, 96-87, bowing out of the conference tournament. Its season ended before March even got underway.
Sophomore Kipper Nichols finished with a game-high 31 points, but Illinois finished a lousy 14-18, including a 4-14 mark in conference play.
To the few dozen Illinois alums in attendance at the bar, plus the group of the Fighting Illini athletic bands (which is the lens I experience this moment through), Whitman’s words had to be a joke.
It was AD speak. What do you want your AD to say?
“Hey, just so y’all know, we’re actually going to get worse next year?” (They did, and Illinois finished 12-21 in Ayo Dosunmu’s freshman season.)
Of course not.
But saying we’re going to write “one of the great stories in the history of college athletics?”
Illinois was as irrelevant as it got. Inside that bar, it had been more than a dozen years since the 2005 team and a handful since the team even sniffed the NCAA Tournament (even if you want to say a win over Rutgers in 2017 would have done it, that team wasn’t very good). Sure, we can put all our hopes in Ayo Dosunmu turning into the savior, but we just wasted Malcolm Hill’s career. What’s going to make this any different?
But shockingly, Whitman called his shot.
He stepped up to the plate, flung the bat over his shoulder and pointed it past dead centerfield. The then-39-year-old wasn’t aiming for the 400 foot sign at the warning track; he was swinging for the 4,000 foot sign in the parking lot three blocks over.
And he did it.
Ayo deserves all of the praise he’s given. So does Kofi Cockburn. And Trent and Da’Monte Williams for sticking around. And Giorgi for being, uh, Giorgi. The college athletes, sacrificing what they always have to sacrifice — especially this year — must be at the center of any discussion of why Illinois is back.
Brad Underwood deserves all of the credit, too. He put together his staff. He secured recruits Illinois previously didn’t stand a chance at. And he was even willing to change his entire system to help his team win.
And while football is still a work in progress, let’s give Whitman the credit where credit is due. I’m not sure any Illini fan in that bar — or anywhere in the world — would have imagined about 1,100 days later Illinois would be named a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and behind only Gonzaga in the AP poll.
But Whitman believed. And the culture of anything must start at the top. While you may disagree with the AD going to bat for his program in an open letter when it comes to securing a regular season title, in his sixth year, the AD has set the standard for what Illinois Athletics should be.
The story isn’t over. There’s still potentially six more pages to be written.
But it certainly has the potential to be one of the greatest in the history of college athletics.