DeKALB – For Debbie Whitman, timing is everything.
After making a name for herself as DeKalb’s girls varsity basketball coach, the Northern Illinois alumna realized that she wanted to take the next step into the college ranks, and it hasn’t taken long to make her way up.
After a year as an assistant at Division III North Central College, she came back home as the Director of Basketball Operations at her alma mater last summer. Just one year later, she was elevated to assistant coach, a completely new role.
“I’m coaching now, on the court. That is the biggest change for me,” Whitman said. “The second thing would be recruiting. I can go on the road now, and I can look at the players that we’re trying to bring in.”
In just three years, she has gone from coaching at a high school to a Division I university, and she hasn’t had to go far to do it. Whitman has become a regular in the community, which she believes is a big reason why she has made such a fast ascent.
“Experience came into play,” she said. “Coach Bennett says that she heard a lot about me from the community. I never knew that until I got here, so I think that in a way, the community has helped me get this job.”
It definitely goes beyond that. Whitman was a part of the NIU program from 1990 to 1993, an era that saw two NCAA Tournament appearances and a WNIT berth. She also has past ties with head coach Kathi Bennett, having grown up with her brother, Tony Bennett, and attending camps run by her father, Dick Bennett. Both have been highly successful coaches on the Division I level.
Still, it’s not just Whitman’s relationship with the program that has put her in this position. It’s also her hunger to teach. Her previous job as director of basketball operations didn’t allow her to coach the players, but it was a step that she needed to take if she ever wanted the opportunity in the future. Now Whitman has it, and Bennett says that she is ready.
“She’s got tremendous energy,” Bennett said. “She loves the game of basketball, and you can see it every day at workouts with the players. She loves to coach, so I feel like having her in a coaching role just made us better.”
As a part of one of the last successful NIU teams, Bennett says that Whitman knows what it takes to bring the program to new heights. Her status as a former player commands respect from the current team, and this role allows her to teach them first-hand.
And like Bennett, Whitman’s philosophy starts with defense, a mindset that she says is crucial to developing a winning program.
“There’s no doubt that she’s a defensive coach, and the interesting part is so am I,” Whitman said. “I followed her dad, her brother, their defensive system. That’s what I put in at DeKalb and that’s how we were successful.”
Ultimately, it comes down to her love of the area and the school. Many coaches would see a mid-major program like NIU as a building block to new heights, but Whitman is happy right where she is.
“This position right here is exactly where I want to be,” she said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to be an assistant here at Northern and help turn the program around.”