On Aug. 1, 2014, Josh Whitman, the John M. Schael Director of Athletics at Washington University in St. Louis, walked into his office at the Athletics Complex on the Danforth Campus. That there was change in the air was evident. The Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center was already under construction in the adjacent building; office space and staff members were in flux due to the renovation; and student-athletes were arriving in earnest to begin practices for the Bears’ fall sports season.
Six months later, the construction continues, the athletes continue to energize the building and Whitman’s “year of discovery,” as he calls it, is in full swing — if discovery means a nonstop, whirlwind, glad-handing, meeting-filled, game-packed, if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Big Bend frenzy.
“He’s always working, and he’s always prepared,” said Chris Peacock, deputy director of athletics. Peacock, who came on board last fall from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, jumped at the opportunity to work again with Whitman, 36, a former Illini college football player. They first were colleagues in the U. of I. athletic department after Whitman had returned to his alma mater to attend law school and begin his athletic administrative career.
“In this business, you meet impressive young people all the time, but then you meet the ones who ‘got it,’ ” Peacock said, “the ones you know are really going to go somewhere. I knew right away, ‘He’s got it.’
“He’s highly intelligent, he has a vision, and he knows where he wants to take this department,” Peacock said.
So while the energetic, driven Whitman works full speed ahead, here are seven things you need to know about what drives the man charged with taking the already successful Washington University athletics program to a new level — and where exactly he intends to take it.
1. He once lined up on a football field against a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, and it was a turning point in his life.
At Illinois, Whitman was a four-year letterman and is considered one of the greatest tight ends in its storied football history. But his collegiate career didn’t start that way. Whitman entered college as a heralded high school player from West Lafayette, Indiana. He was a tight end, a position that requires not only the strength and toughness to block, but also agility and quick-thinking composure to receive – typically a short pass that leaves one in the crosshairs of a linebacker.
Whitman quickly discovered that it’s a long way from Indiana preps to Big Ten football. His first season, 1997, his Illini squad finished 0-11, including a 38-10 loss at the hands of Iowa in the conference opener.
“I played awful in that Iowa game,” he said. “Whether it was blocking or in the pass game, I was completely outmanned. I remember my coach calling me in the next day and saying, ‘If you keep playing like that, we’re not going to be able to keep you in anymore.’
“That week I just redoubled my efforts, and focused on what I was doing and who the opponent was.”
The next opponent was Penn State, who had, Whitman said, some remarkable players — including a freshman defensive end named Courtney Brown, the eventual No. 1 overall draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2000. “I knew I was going to have to block him a lot,” he said, “I played not a great game, but a respectable game, and proved to myself and the coaches that I belonged.”
From that point, Whitman said, there was no turning back. “For me, that solution was always going to be hard work,” he said. “I wasn’t the biggest or fastest or strongest player out there. I just worked harder than anybody.”
2. Failing in front of 95,000 people puts things in perspective.
Whitman said there were many very public, humbling moments in his college career. “Once you’ve dropped a pass in front of 95,000 fans and then get right back out there, you know things are going to be OK,” he said. “You’re going to lay it all on the line from time to time, and sometimes things are going to go your way and other times they’re not.”
Whitman started at tight end all four seasons, and ended his career with 52 receptions and seven touchdowns. He was a two-time academic All-American who was given the honor of delivering the NCAA Scholar-Athlete Award speech at the College Football Hall of Fame banquet.
“Athletics teaches so many intangible lessons,” he said. “The ability to handle stress and pressure is one of them. Things can be happening fast and furious around me, but I take a lot of pride in being pretty level and pretty calm.”
3. Those NFL helmets in his office? They are his, and this is what they remind him of:
Undrafted after college, Whitman originally was signed by the Buffalo Bills and released, then immediately picked up by the San Diego Chargers, with whom he appeared in four games in the 2001 season. He also had, at various times, stints with the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks and was fired, he said, “seven times by age 25.”
In the process, he banked enough time to retire a vested player who will one day earn an NFL pension. The experience was humbling, yet cultivated in Whitman a “strong sense of myself” and was, in a way, life-affirming. “For every one player whose name you might hear on ESPN,” he said, “there are 30-40 like me who live in hotels and move from team to team.”
He said he learned from those years that no matter how talented he was or how hard he worked, there were no guarantees about anything. “I appreciated being wanted,” Whitman said. “I’ll never forget that.”
4. He went to law school not with intent to practice law, but with an eye toward athletic administration — or whatever came his way.
After his NFL experience, Whitman returned to Illinois to work in the athletics department and attend law school. “I wanted to stand out from the crowd,” he said. “I wanted that background and discipline that law school teaches, and knew it would be excellent training in contracts and relationship building and mediation. Law school provided me flexibility.”
Flexibility mixed with a sharp, legal mind. His performance as a law student led him to serve as a judicial law clerk for U.S. Circuit Judge M.S. Kanne in Lafayette, Indiana, on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to Covington & Burling, a Washington, D.C., law firm that served as primary counsel for the NFL, before heading to the University of Wisconsin La-Crosse and beginning his Division III administrative career.
5. Coming to Washington University was a crossroads in his career.
Whitman might not have originally envisioned for himself a career in Division III athletics, but he’s in it for the long haul.
“For me to come here to WashU was a momentous decision in my personal life, because it was really a fork in the road,” he said. “It was me putting a signpost in the ground and recognizing there were things about Division III athletics, when compared with Division I, that I would have a hard time leaving: interactions with the student-athletes, the day-to-day workings with coaches, the quality-of-life elements.
“One of the great things about WashU is that we are able to offer what is, in essence, a Division I competitive environment with a Division III value system,” he said. “That, to me, was too good to pass up.”
6. He intends for Washington University to be the best Division III athletics program in the country.
A tall order, he admits, but reachable even if “best” is difficult to quantify.
“Here at WashU, literally across the board, every program has the opportunity to be a national contender,” Whitman said. “We want to continue to fan that flame and provide those opportunities for the student-athletes.”
One way to do that, Whitman believes, is to promote a culture of excellence within the athletics department at every level, beginning with every staff member feeling as if he or she has the best job in the country in his or her particular role.
“I want our assistant women’s basketball coach to have the best assistant women’s basketball coaching job in the country; our assistant facilities manager to have the best assistant facilities job in the country. I’m happy that some of our people already have that, but it needs to be every person,” he said.
“I already know I’ve got the best Division III athletics director job in the country, no question about it. I want to be able to say the same thing about everyone in the WashU athletics family.”
7. Speaking of work, he’s never worked a day in his life.
“I love what I do,” Whitman said. “I tell people my hope for them is that they can find something they enjoy as much as I enjoy this.”
His role models: His mom and dad. Both his parents were teachers — his mom an elementary school teacher and his dad a high school chemistry teacher — who set an example for hard work and loving the career you have chosen.
“My mom retired a couple years ago after 40 years of teaching,” he said. “She was fond of saying she never worked a day in her life because she simply got to go school.
“I take that to heart every day.”