Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith is a man of his word and a man who truly believes in equal opportunities in every walk of life.
"One of these days you're going to see a female walking down through the Smith Center, too," Smith said back in February. "To me, if you are qualified, we are going to find you."
Smith kept true to his word Tuesday, shocking not only Illini Nation but the Big Ten Conference and the national media by hiring 23-year-old Ashton Washington as the Director of High School Relations.
Washington is the first African-American female to be hold a full-time position for a Big Ten football program.
The Huston-Tillotson University grad, who grew up in Mississippi and lives in Texas, met with the media Tuesday on a Zoom call to show Illinois fans and recruits what is about to change.
"Ashton Washington brings a unique skill set to the Smith Center, really something that no one else in the building has at this time," Smith said.
Washington joins the Illini after serving as a business and game-day operations specialist for the XFL's Houston Roughnecks last season. Her brother Parker, who is a talented wide-receiver, is attending Penn State on a football scholarship, which will make for some interesting conversations at home, according to Washington.
"My mother said she doesn't know if she should wear a Penn State shirt or Illinois," Washington said. "I told her she better make a good choice, either represent Illinois or support the Big Ten overall."
When Parker, a four-star prospect, was being recruited, Ashton said she learned what should and should not be done during the process.
"She is high energy, extremely organized and brings a different perspective on how we will engage with recruits when they are on the University of Illinois campus," Smith said. "Ashton is a great fit with our staff and program. I can't wait for all of us to be together again working toward bringing the best student-athletes we can to our campus."
Washington is young, but her enthusiasm will never be questioned. She is fully aware what is at stake and how the top players in the state haven't been giving Illinois much thought recently.
That, Washington said, is about to change.
"I want to build relationships with coaches and recruits here in the state of Illinois, and, of course, outside of Illinois, showing them what we're about even before they come to campus," she said. "My job is to attract them to come to Illinois, what can Illinois do for an athlete. When I walk into a high school in Illinois I'm expecting to see coaches with Illinois coffee mugs on their desk; that's how much I want to build the in-state love.”
Washington said that during her first day on the job she was already receiving calls from coaches in the Chicago area as well as elsewhere. Some asked to set up Zoom calls with her.
Her passion for the game and knowledge should help with coaches, recruits, and families when they arrive on campus.
"During a Zoom call one-on-one with coach Smith, (when he) said this conversation didn't just happen, this conversation happened because of God, at the moment I said I want to work for Coach Lovie Smith,” she said.
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