- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - A University of Illinois official familiar with the decision says the school has hired Washington University athletic director Josh Whitman as its new AD.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday night on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced publicly.

Whitman will take over for Mike Thomas, who was fired Nov. 9 though interim Chancellor Barb Wilson said he had done nothing wrong.

Thomas was fired just over two months after he had fired football coach Tim Beckman amid allegations that Beckman had interfered in players’ medical decisions and pressured players to play hurt.

Seven women’s basketball players have sued the school claiming coach Matt Bollant and some staff created a racially abusive environment.

Whitman, a former Illinois football player, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday night.

Whitman will take over a complicated situation at Illinois.

In the absence of a permanent athletic director, interim football coach Bill Cubit was named the permanent coach but given only a two-year contract, unusually short in a sport where coaches try to assure recruits that they will be at the school for a full four years. The decision to hire Cubit and do so on such a short contract upset many fans.

After he was fired, Beckman also hinted he might sue the university, though that has so far not happened.

Another Thomas hire, men’s basketball coach John Groce, is also drawing the ire of many fans. The Illini have a losing record and could miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season. Illinois hasn’t missed three straight NCAA Tournaments since 1978-80.

The lawsuit filed by the former women’s basketball players continues. A university-hired law firm investigated and found Bollant did nothing wrong, and he remains on the job, but his team is also struggling.

And Whitman could face another potential challenge.

Wilson remains the interim chancellor while the university looks for a new top administrator for the Urbana-Champaign campus. Whitman will have a new boss, if the university’s plans hold, by the new school year.

Whitman has been athletic director at two schools with Division III programs, Washington University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

He started at Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2010 when he was 32, then took over at Washington University in St. Louis in 2014.

In his time at Washington, Bears teams won four national championships and 21 conference titles.

Whitman is from West Lafayette, Indiana, the son of a retired school teacher.

He graduated from Illinois with a law degree and a bachelor’s degree in finance. He was a tight end on the football team from 1997-2000.

Whitman worked in the athletic administration at Illinois for almost four years, first as a coordinator of special projects and then as assistant to then-athletic director Ron Guenther.

Whitman played in the NFL for a little over three seasons, with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins. He also played for the Frankfurt Galaxy in the now-defunct NFL Europe.

Between pro football and working at the University of Illinois, Whitman spent a year at the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burlington. The firm at the time was defending the NFL in the antitrust lawsuit brought against it.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter, @davidmercerAP

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