CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman was a lawyer before moving into a career in athletic administration.
His days as a lawyer with Covington & Burling LLP — a notable sports practice in Washington, D.C., that represented the likes of the NFL — were usually divided into six-minute segments.
“I’d be curious to see how many of those increments over the last two months would have been dedicated to talking about the football schedule and the format and how we were going to approach it,” Whitman said in regard to how the Big Ten revised its 2020 schedule, which was released earlier this week.
“It was a decision that was literally months in the making. As you would expect, disappointed not to be able to play our original schedule. We were excited about that schedule, but I do believe in the control and flexibility provided by the Big Ten-only format.”
Whitman and the other 13 Big Ten athletic directors had an active role in how the Big Ten moved from its nine-game slate of league games in the typical 12-game schedule to 10 games against only conference opponents this fall. Whitman’s role, along with the other athletic directors, was in establishing the basic principles of the schedule.
Like playing the nine games already on the schedule. Figuring out where divisional and cross-divisional games fit. Arranging the bye weeks to maximize flexibility should the coronavirus pandemic demand it.
“We worked through each of those things systematically talking about general principles we’d like to see reflected in the schedule,” Whitman said. “We didn’t see opponents until the day before it was published. We knew that every two weeks we’d have a home and an away opponent. We could see that at the beginning we were all going to open with a cross-divisional game. We saw where the bye weeks would sync up.”
Whitman said his biggest takeaway from the revised Big Ten schedule was the idea of health and safety being the paramount consideration. Going with a conference-only schedule put the Big Ten in the best position to handle any pandemic-related situations that might arise with consistent, league-wide protocols.
“It would have been better for the conference financially to play the 12 games we all had scheduled,” Whitman said. “There’s no question that from a television perspective to take the inventory from 90-plus games down to 70 games is a significant change. We knew that in order to put together an environment that really maximized the health and safety of our student-athlete, then we felt like it needed to be conference-only. That became apparent some time ago. I think we continued to debate it and continued to think about it and talk about it to make sure we didn’t have any blind spots on that front.”
The elimination of nonconference games meant some tough phone calls for Whitman to his athletic director colleagues at Illinois State, UConn (which has since canceled its 2020 season) and Bowling Green. Whitman has kept in regular contact with Illinois State athletic director Larry Lyons throughout the pandemic and worked out a rescheduled date with the Redbirds this week for the first week of the 2028 season.
Not much else other than the order of games changed for Illinois in its 2020 slate. Of course, that means facing reigning Big Ten champions Ohio State in the opening week of the season. Another potential top-10 team was added at the back end in Penn State as the Illini’s 10th game.
Illinois’ revised schedule, of course, is now seen as one of the more difficult schedules in the Big Ten. It complicates how Lovie Smith’s fifth team might be able to build off of an improved 2019 effort that saw the Illini go 6-7 and play in their first bowl game since 2014.
How it affects the 2020 season aside, Whitman considers last year’s efforts a “much needed step” for the Illinois football program.
“When you struggle for some time, I think one of the biggest challenges is remembering how to win. It’s understanding when you get into tight moments in ball games, you’ve got the strength and the fortitude and you’ve got the experience to draw from that pushes you through to victory,” he said. “We needed a couple of those marquee wins on the record books. To get those on our side last year, that’s one experience we can draw from going forward. It was a great year for us. Certainly, again, six wins is never the expectation, but it was a needed step for us in the right direction. It got us back in the postseason. It got us back in the bowl business.”
How Whitman will evaluate further progress of the football program, though, has changed. Playing amid a pandemic creates questions. Questions that don’t necessarily have answers now and might not during the season either. Questions like what happens if Smith or other coaches or starting quarterback Brandon Peters or the entire offensive line are unavailable because of coronavirus.
“You start pulling on the thread of the sweater, and it goes in a hurry,” Whitman said. “It’s just hard to predict what the season will look like. We don’t know which games will get played. We don’t know the order the games will be played or what the other team will have available to them. There are a lot of moving parts here. I think when the season’s over, we’ll have a chance to sit down and say, ‘Well, what did we learn?’ A lot of that will be determined by the circumstances that present themselves over the course of the year.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).