Illini Athletic Administrators Reflect on Past Year
In a recent interview with Mike Pearson of FightingIllini.com, the two Illini administrators reflected on the past year, calling it both the most challenging period in their careers and also the most gratifying.Below is an excerpt from that interview.
“Early on in the process, I was reminded about that (Dwight) Eisenhower quote—’Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,'” said Ballard. “Each day, it seemed like things were constantly changing. Early on, our biggest resource was the University of Illinois and its unbelievable amount of brainpower, geniuses, intellectuals, professors, researchers, etc.”
In May of 2020, a campus and community committee known as COVID-19 SHIELD was formed. Comprising the nearly 40-person team was a wide array of area and campus experts, ranging from medicine and microbiology to biochemistry and engineering.
“The SHIELD group has been phenomenal,” Ballard said. “I couldn’t begin to tell you about all of the people we’ve been able to talk to across a wide variety of domains. We were asking professors on campus about using UV (ultraviolet) rays as disinfectants. We talked to campus people in engineering that had specialties in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems. Just knowing that those resources were there was huge for putting a plan together as well as just knowing what questions to ask.”
“Well before COVID, I’ve often said that there’s not another place I’d want to be than at the University of Illinois,” Ballard said. “Given the intellectual capital and the leadership that we have at this institution, the people who are willing to take time and give us recommendations and guidance have been remarkable.”
Busch said that a lion’s share of the credit for actually carrying out the DIA’s plan goes to its more than 500 student-athletes.
“One of the best parts of the profession for me is watching young 17- or 18-year-olds grow into outstanding young men and young women,” he said. “Part of their growth is discipline, doing what it takes to really succeed. To watch them transform this year and then buying into our guidance was huge. Then, to see them have those successes on the court and on the field … men’s basketball, men’s golf, and tennis. Our student-athletes deserve a lot of that credit. Because they bought in, they reaped the rewards. This is ultimately going to set them up for success in the long run. When they have some adversity in their lives, they’re going to know how to handle it. They’re going to be able to say, ‘I’ve struggled with a lot worse.’ It’s really fun to watch. One of the better moments I’ve had in college athletics is to watch them have success through all of this adversity.”
“It’s just a testament to the team effort and all the work and sacrifices that our staff and our student-athletes have made,” he said.
There have been negative repercussions, however, in terms of many of the student-athletes’ mental and emotional health.
“Arguably, it’s one of the points that hasn’t been talked about,” Busch said. “It’s truly taken a toll on our student-athletes and staff members. COVID has taken them out of their traditional routine. They are creatures of habit. Early on, during quarantine, our student-athletes did virtual visits with our mental health team. A student-athlete first comes to campus at 17 or 18 years old and it’s usually their first time away from home. Then you tell them that they have to stay in their dorm room and limit their social actions and limit them to what they’d normally have in their sport’s facility. This greatly increased the risk of mental health issues. Even with the support that we were able to surround them with, there was an increase in the number of cases. Nationally, this happened across campuses.”
On May 4, modified this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, Illini student-athletes celebrated the 2020-21 school year by attending “The Oskees Experience” at State Farm Center. First-year athletes were presented their Varsity I jackets while seniors were given a graduation gift. Additionally, Ballard sent them a heartfelt message from his staff.
“On a day when we recognize the biggest and brightest achievements of the past year, both in the classroom and on the field, I felt that I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to thank and congratulate our student-athletes for all they did and all they achieved in lieu of COVID,” he said.
To read the full feature on the Illini athletics department, click here.