Tate: AD exits at Illinois always ugly

Tate: AD exits at Illinois always ugly

The Illini athletic department needed a “fresh start,” according to interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson, and paid $2.5 million for the transition.

That’s the buyout for Mike Thomas, who didn’t violate any rules but turned out to be the classic victim of circumstances.

As athletic director, he became an energetic builder, oversaw huge spring successes in non-revenue sports and handled his job professionally.

But there are three things you mustn’t do as AD at a Power Five school: (1) Don’t hire losing coaches in football and basketball, (2) don’t re-arrange basketball seating and (3) don’t get caught up in a legal tangle over medical oversights.

We’re been aware of Nos. 1 and 2 for a couple or years. The reseating was a concern of the previous AD, Ron Guenther, a decade ago because he knew the State Farm Center renovation was certain to infuriate long-time fans who thought they owned their seats and would be obliged to pay more for lesser locations.

The inevitable seating shakeup caused anti-Thomas feeling to metastasize throughout Illini Nation, taking a serious chunk out of his popularity well before Monday’s announcement came down from the UI administration.


Unhealthy situation

But we aren’t paying enough attention to No. 3, the medical aspect. Or, rather, maybe Thomas wasn’t.

When a football coach has six head trainers in three years, it raises a red flag ... to which UI administrative leaders appeared colorblind.

Beginning with Nick Richey, who overlapped from the Ron Zook regime, the trainers kept leaving, one after another ... Chris Brown, Scott Brooks, Toby Harkins and Jake Naas, right up to the still-present Jeremy Busch.

The Franczek Radelet report offers plenty of clarification.

“Although Coach Tim Beckman supported student-athlete welfare in various respects, he also employed a wide array of motivational tactics directed primarily at players and athletic trainers that violated standards and protocols in meaningful and systemic ways,” the report reads. “... His statements and conduct appear to have deterred players from bringing medical concerns to the attention of athletic trainers and medical professionals and, when reported, to have encouraged them to return earlier than sports medication staff may have otherwise decided.”

This, coupled with a report that Beckman pressured four players to relinquish their scholarships after the fall semester of 2014, led Thomas to fire him.

Now comes the age-old question for all department leaders: Should Thomas have known about internal issues in football and two women’s sports before the athletes made them public?


History lesson

AD departures here never end on a happy note.

This dates back to the summer of 1941 when Wendell Wilson sought the ouster of long-time football coach Bob Zuppke, and was ousted and replaced by basketball coach Doug Mills.

Not counting six (now seven) interim directors, here’s how it went:

— With Mills’ forced retirement in 1966, Pete Elliott was poised to step up from the football job. But on the eve of that announcement, assistant AD Mel Brewer turned over books revealing an illegal “slush fund” and the UI’s athletic world came crashing down.

— Former Whiz Kid Gene Vance served from 1967 to 1972 without a winning football season.

— Cecil Coleman arrived from Wichita State to pinch pennies for a struggling Athletic Association. Chancellor Bill Gerberding, as a final gesture, fired Coleman just as he was leaving in 1979 to take the presidency at Washington. Ray Eliot stepped in temporarily.

— Neale Stoner was a resounding success in the 1980s until serious integrity breakdowns caused his ouster by Chancellor Mort Weir.

— John Mackovic handled the dual task of football coach and AD for four years until he accepted the head football job at Texas.

— Ron Guenther’s 20-year career ran its course and he stepped down in 2011 with football and basketball in dire straits ... and that hasn’t changed as Paul Kowalczyk takes the interim reins from Thomas.


Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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PortlandIllini wrote on November 09, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Mike Thomas is a victim of circumstances?    That's a statement which strains credulity.  

Loren Tate believes that Mike Thomas is a victim of the current situation in Illinois athletics.   In contrast,  I believe that Thomas is the architect ,  not the victim,  of the current mess.  

Moonpie:  you can now post your comment given to you by those voices in your head.



mstook423 wrote on November 10, 2015 at 12:11 pm

The real reason for Thomas being let go was the lack of oversight of several sports.  He probably could have survived problems in one sport but because issues resonated thoughout the the department the head had to go.  As pointed out by an earlier commenter, the reseating of the State Farm Center was never an issue that led to Thomas' demise.