To many Illini fans, Mike Bass is probably best known as a standout, barefoot kicker from the early 1980s and a member of the University of Illinois' All-Century football team.
Over the past two decades, however, he went on to become a major player in state government as budget director for the Senate Republicans and then returned to the UI, where he now serves as executive assistant vice president of operations and external affairs.
Bass, who lives in Mahomet with his wife and 5-year-old son, said he is happy to be back at the institution that played such a pivotal role in his life.
"The bottom line for me and the great thing about my life is that the benefits and the blessings that I've gotten in my career are really founded on the time that I spent at the university and the opportunities that were available to me here, both educationally and athletically. Unlike a lot of people, I have the opportunity to come back and give back, and it's a nice circle for me to close."
Bass' dedication to the university shows in his work, said Craig Bazzani, vice president for advancement for the UI Foundation and a former top university administrator.
"The UI has always been deep in his heart," Bazzani said. "This is more than a job to Mike. For a lot of people their work is a job. For others it's a career and a labor of love, and I think Mike falls into the labor of love category."
That desire is not the only reason Bass has been so successful at the UI, his friends and former coworkers said. It is also a testament to his work ethic and the experiences he draws on from his education (a bachelor's in political science and an MBA from the UI), his roles in state government and his football experiences.
As the oldest son of an NFL coach, Bass' life revolved around football from the beginning.
"It was sort of a neat thing to grow up with," he said. "I got to go to camp, worked as a ball boy, and those kinds of things, so it was very intriguing."
But it also meant the family moved around a lot, living in Florida and California at various times and even Ohio at one point. From Florida, where Bass graduated high school as a top football and tennis player, he headed to North Carolina for a year at Davidson College, then back to Florida to finish his associate's degree. In 1980, he came to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, where he worked his way up to team captain in 1982.
Every time he started with a new team, he had to prove himself all over again, Bass said.
"As a kicker, you know, basically you either make it or you don't," he said. "And you tend to at times be the butt of jokes there in a team environment until you prove that you can do the job. And from my career here I had the great fortune of - kicking a winning field goal in the second game I was here, and you know, just like anything, you gain credibility, and you work like hell to keep it because once you lose it you can't get it back, or it is very difficult."
Entering the world of government, Bass started building credibility anew, first as an intern in Gov. Jim Thompson's office through the Dunn Fellow program and later at jobs in the state's Bureau of the Budget and on the Senate Republican appropriations staff, where he spent a few years before serving an 18-month stint as budget director for the Illinois Department of Public Aid. In 1993, then-Senate President James "Pate" Philip asked Bass to return as appropriations director for Senate Republicans, a job he stayed in until 2001.
"I can't say enough for what I learned at that point about the art of negotiation, about how state government really works," Bass said. "And in the end, it's not something that's all that abnormal. It's a process of compromise and consensus because for the budget to get done, you need that."
Bass was well-known in that job for being a straight shooter and providing good solid information, said Bazzani.
Longtime Senate Republican press secretary Patty Schuh said Bass was known to be hard-driven and detail-oriented, even "persnickety."
"As we all do, you want your work product to be the best it can be, but he set pretty high standards, and he was a very valued and trusted member of the team," she said. "You could rely on his information."
State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, said he was very impressed with Bass' performance, both on the field at the UI and also at the Capitol, where the two developed a close working relationship.
"First and foremost, he's just one heck of a nice guy," Black said. "Secondly, he's just pretty sharp. A lot of people have stereotypes about football players. Mike Bass is a very intelligent man. He did an outstanding job as appropriations director. Probably to this day, he has a better grasp of the state budget process than most people who work in Springfield."
And Bass admits he does still monitor the state budget process pretty closely.
"Oh yeah, I watch that," he said. "I'm always going to be interested in that, and you know, I have the fortune to sit on the Illinois Procurement Policy Board, so I keep some contact with it in even more of a detailed way than normal. And you know, you make your contacts, you always use them, so I network it. I talk to people, and I'm not shy about giving my personal opinion on those things if they ask me questions, which they sometimes still do."
Not much has changed in the budget debate since Bass left the statehouse for the UI, he said.
"It's the same," he said. "This equation is not a hard equation. It's raise more, spend less or do some of both, and eventually you get down to that. The real issue is how do you balance that when you have significantly competing interests. And from my standpoint, the question now is, how does higher ed fit into a fairly difficult environment in Springfield."
Bass said he learned some important lessons during his time in state government.
"Government has its rules, and the way you're effective is to understand the rules of the game," he said. "And treat people fairly. Relationships, like in anything else, are a key factor to success."
Carter Hendren, who was Senate Republican chief of staff during Bass' tenure, had nothing but high praise for him.
"He's pleasant to work with because he's always prepared," Hendren said. "He always anticipates questions and problems and has thought about solutions. He has a balanced and thoughtful approach to the problem, and he has a consistent, pleasant personality. He has a natural instinct for government and management. He's a good manager. He knows how to use the resources he's allocated and use them to their capacity."
Bass is getting to put those instincts to work in his current role at the university, where he does everything from chairing the Illinois Higher Education Travel Control Board to overseeing the consolidation of all of the university's transactional functions, such as payroll, accounting and purchasing, into one operational division reporting to him.
That work is an important way to give back to the UI because the savings from those initiatives help support the academic mission of the university and make it stronger as a whole, he said.
"Obviously I have a deep loyalty to the institution, and as we sit here in tough times, I really do believe that it's important for us, as I think President (B. Joseph) White is attempting to do now, to make it clear that if we're going to be successful as a nation, a state or whatever, we need to continue to support the mission of higher education," Bass said.
"You shoot yourself in the foot if you're not going to support something that's going to increase your knowledge. And what I can do to help that is what I've going to do. In a small way, we're trying to do that by being better at what we do, and I think we're making some good progress on that."