by Jacqueline LeBlanc
Mar. 20, 23
Ashton Washington made history in May 2020 when she became the first-ever African-American female staff member for the University of Illinois football program.
On May 19, the University announced that Washington would join the football program as the new director of high school relations. When Illinois head coach Lovie Smith was hired in 2016, he discussed the need for more diversity within the program. Illinois already has seven black assistant coaches, which is the most in any Power 5 conference football. With Washington’s hire, the Fighting Illini now step into improving their program with diverse talent across race and gender.
“For me, I hire the best coaches,” Lovie Smith said in a February interview. “I’m excited about everybody that we have on our staff, and that there’s diversity in our building… One of these days you’re going to see a female walking down here, too. To me, if you’re qualified, we are going to find you.”
Washington’s role as Director of High School Relations puts her at the forefront of Illinois’s in-state recruiting. The 23-year-old will also monitor the school’s transfer portal, which has proven to be a crucial tool for the Illinois football program in recent years.
“This is something I’ve truly, truly taken in as a trailblazer,” Washington told Sports Illustrated. “It’s not just for African-American women, it’s for other women behind me. That’s my main goal for young girls who are looking up to me right now is that it’s possible for them to do the same if they are planning to go down this same route.”
In-state recruiting has been notoriously troublesome for Illinois football as of late. The program failed to produce a single in-state high school signee from the 2020 recruiting class. Washington says changing this culture is her top priority.
“On a Zoom (video conference) call with Lovie, his two things about hiring me was one, I was qualified but two, he wants to continue to build and change that (in-state recruiting) culture,” Washington told Sports Illustrated. “When I walk into the offices of high school coaches, I expect to see them have Illinois mugs on their desks.
Washington started her football career as the director of operations and recruiting for The Old Coach, a media outlet that provides statewide coverage of Texas high school football. She later took her talents to the Houston Roughnecks in the XFL where she worked as the organization’s business and game day operations specialist until the league suspended operations in the spring of 2020.
“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 in a statement after her hiring. “She is high energy, extremely organized, and brings a different perspective in how we will engage with recruits when they are on the University of Illinois campus. 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.”