Thomas fired

Thomas fired

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois fired athletic director Mike Thomas on Monday, ending his four-plus year tenure leading an athletic department marred by a series of off-the-field incidents in the last six months.

The university will pay him $2.5 million in the next 60 days as part of a separation agreement.

"Mike Thomas has done a good job of leading through recent challenges. Decisions such as these are always difficult," UI interim chancellor Barbara Wilson said today before addressing the situation at an 11 a.m. news conference (coverage here, including our podcast here).

Wilson named senior associate athletic director Paul Kowalczyk as interim AD effective immediately. Kowalczyk has served as AD at Southern Illinois and Colorado State before arriving at the UI in 2012.

Thomas' stay at the UI was marred by a football program that neither produced wins on the field nor performed to expectations off of it. 

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An investigation spurred by a former player's complaints about mistreatment by then-coach Tim Beckman triggered a change in the days leading up to the season opener. Beckman was fired Aug. 28.

Wilson said the investigation by Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet has been concluded. She said the report found no misconduct by Thomas and no violations of policy.

Here is the full 1,267-page report. (It's a 57-MB file)

From calling a player a “pussy” or “sissy” for seeking medical treatment to encouraging players not to report, the report paints a picture of Beckman as an  abusive coach.

“We found evidence showing that Coach Beckman repeatedly communicated with players in ways, both explicit and implicit, that had the effect of deterring them from sharing information with sports medicine staff about injuries. When viewed in isolation many of these incidents might be considered only slightly inappropriate. However, the cumulative effect of Coach Beckman’s conduct and statements on the culture of the program conflicted with the best interests of the student-athletes,” the report read. “Specifically, the information provided to us demonstrates that Coach Beckman engaged in a pattern of criticizing and demeaning players for seeking evaluation by an athletic trainer during practice, promoting the idea of playing through injuries, belittling injuries, and encouraging players to minimize their injuries.”

"I believe it is a good time to turn the page and put the focus of this organization back on the success and welfare of our student athletes," Thomas, 55, said in a release issued this morning.

Said Wilson: "I believe this decision allows everyone to move forward."

Neither Thomas nor Beckman returned messages left for them this morning.

Named athletic director in 2011, Thomas oversaw sweeping changes among the high-profile sports.

Thomas was hired by former UI president Michael Hogan in August 2011. Thomas’ original contract was signed November 18, 2011. The board of trustees gave Thomas a three-year extension on January 23, 2014.

At the time, board of trustee officials praised Thomas’ ability to secure a $60 million naming rights contract for then-Assembly Hall and the success student-athletes had in the classroom.

After the extension, Thomas was one of the highest compensated employees on campus — trailing only Beckman and John Groce — with the ability to make up to $988,723 if he met certain performance goals.

At the time of his extension, the average total compensation for a Big Ten athletic director was $989,673.

Thomas attended Saturday's football game at Purdue.

The change comes leading up to Friday's men's and women's basketball openers as well as Saturday's football game against No. 2 Ohio State.

Led by interim coach Bill Cubit, the Illini are 5-4 and on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible.

Thomas' firing throws into question the hiring process for the next football coach — if Cubit isn't retained. When Beckman was fired, Thomas indicated that he'd lead the search.

Asked it about it on Saturday's radio appearance on WDWS 1400-AM, Thomas said:

“I don’t think anyone should be inactive or have their feet up on their desk right now,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to be paying attention to what’s going on. I do not foresee making any decisions before the end of the year, but once that happens you need to be ready, certainly, to move into action.”

The change atop the athletic department is the latest in a series of administrative moves by the Big Ten school. Since early August: Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida resigned and Beckman was fired.

The move came more than two months after Thomas stood in front of a podium at Memorial Stadium and announced he was firing Beckman, who based on a preliminary report of an independent investigation conducted in regards to the football program was found to deter players from reporting injuries and threatened to take away players’ scholarships. 

Illinois hired Thomas on Aug. 10, 2011, to replace Ron Guenther. Guenther retired in the summer of 2011 after 19 years as the Illinois athletic director.

Thomas left his mark early on in his tenure at Illinois, firing three of the higher-profile coaches on the UI campus within seven months of his arrival.

He fired Ron Zook one day after the Illini ended the 2011 regular season with its sixth straight loss after a 6-0 start. Shortly after Illinois failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2012, Thomas let Bruce Weber go after nine seasons, a move which came a week after he fired women’s basketball coach Jolette Law.

His decision to hire Beckman as the Illinois football coach backfired on him after more than three seasons, which weren’t highlighted by on-the-field success. Beckman led Illinois to a 12-25 record and one bowl appearance in three seasons, with Thomas having to deal with questions in each of Beckman’s final two seasons about whether the Illinois athletic director would bring Beckman back.

Men’s basketball has only made one NCAA tournament appearance under John Groce, whom Thomas hired in March 2012 to replace Weber. Groce currently sports a 62-42 record in his three seasons leading the Illini, with the 2015-16 season set to tip off in four weeks.

Women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant carries a 43-51 record into his fourth season and has failed to take the program to the NCAA tournament, a distinction the program hasn’t delivered on since 2003. 

But Bollant and Beckman’s programs created a negative perception of the Illinois athletic department in the past five months with allegations of abuse levied by former football players and allegations of a racially hostile environment fostered by Bollant and his staff brought forth by former women’s basketball players. A $10 million lawsuit is still pending against Thomas, Bollant and others filed by the families of seven former players. 

Despite the success of the spring sports by Illinois in the 2014-15 school year that delivered four Big Ten titles to Illinois, the subsequent fallout from the independent investigations into both the football program (still ongoing) and the women’s basketball program (the report indicated no wrong-doing on the part of Illinois, but former Illinois women’s basketball coach Mike Divilbiss was let go by Bollant this past spring before allegations first surfaced publicly) hindered Thomas’ ability to lead the program in the eyes of many. 

 

Here is the best and worst  of the Mike Thomas era. Thomas was removed by Illinois on Monday.:

***

Highlight: His first football team in 2011 started the season 6-0

Lowlight: The first season ended 7-6, including six consecutive losses. Thomas fired Ron Zook.

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Highlight: Thomas found his man to replace Zook, hiring Tim Beckman from Toledo.

Lowlight: Thomas fired Beckman after preliminary reports came back on an investigation into the Beckman program.

***

Highlight: Thomas picked John Groce to replace Bruce Weber and his Groce’s first team went to the NCAA tournament.

Lowlight: School hasn’t been back since.

***

Hightlight: Hired Matt Bollant, considered a high riser in women’s basketball.

Lowlight: Where do we start? Lack of success on the court and a $10 million lawsuit filed by former players.

 

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vcponsardin wrote on November 09, 2015 at 10:11 am

So what.  Who cares?  An insignificant change of staff, that's all.  UI athletics will go on just as it always has...  Zzzzz...

Mikeydamouth wrote on November 09, 2015 at 10:11 am

I doubt if a lot of people are surprised by this announcement.

88illiniwek wrote on November 09, 2015 at 10:11 am

About time. Wilson stated: the report found no misconduct by Thomas and no violations of policy. But if you read between the lines, what Wilson did not state is the report found no conduct by Thomas. Simply, he did not supervise or discipline his hires and ignored and wiped his hands clean of serious issues in his department. See ya. It's a crime that he has 2.5 million reasons not to care he got canned. 

jgrout wrote on November 09, 2015 at 11:11 am

The only question is whether the next AD and the next football coach are both African-American or if the next football coach is African-American.  The trustees who voted against Caucasian ADs and football coaches will surely have a majority on their side this time.

danaqc02 wrote on November 09, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I think  the firing of Thomas is long over due. In hindsight he was a bad fit for the Universtiy of Illinois sports programs.  His pre-emptive firing of both Zook and Weber set back those respective programs 4 years at least. 

mstook423 wrote on November 09, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Mike Thomas' current salary is $544,321 base pay with the potential to make more through a performance bonus program.  The cost to let him go is $2.5 million dollars paid to him in the next 60 days.  He once discussed how new contracts with coaches wouldn't have big buyouts like the ones Weber and Zook had in their contracts.  It looks like that philosophy didn't apply to him.  

sweet caroline wrote on November 09, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Severance pay of 2.5 million makes me want to puke.  Nobody is worth that kind of money.  No wonder the university is going to have make cuts in personnel.  All the money is going to the big shots.  Disgusting.

UIUCHoopFan wrote on November 09, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Keep swinging the ax, Interim Chancellor Wilson, keep swinging the ax!  There's plenty of ivory tower top heaviness that can be eliminated throughout the rest of campus as well.   

 

birdfarmer wrote on November 09, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Not just "going to have to make cuts in personnel", is NOW terminating staff, trying to keep it quiet, but actually, really terminating long-term staff because they urinate away money on this kind of stupidity.

jturner wrote on November 09, 2015 at 5:11 pm

In the immortal words of Phyllis Wise -  "This place is a mess"  

Big buyout for someone who "has done a good job of leading though recent challenges"  (that would distinguish him from other "leaders" who have been invisible.)

PR mumbo jumbo -  try the truth -  Does anyone believe that this didn't come down from the BOT and other powerful interest?

 

Tom Napier wrote on November 09, 2015 at 7:11 pm

I'm not a Mike Thomas fan, but this firing smells like dead fish.

Interim Chancellor Wilson says Thomas is a great guy, brought in lots of money, won conference championships in many sports, and seen athletes' graduation rates increase dramatically. He's committed no misconduct. No policies or standards have been violated. He took action when action was needed. But, we're firing him anyway. During the press conference Wilson said she hadn't considered firing Thomas prior to the release of the report. But in another statement she said the firing was a long time coming (maybe not verbatim, but words to that affect).

Or, for those with the ability to read what's not actually written, Thomas is indeed a scoundrel and deserves to be fired. All the flowery rhetoric is bull droppings; just part of the buyout.

Either way Wilson is blowing smoke out her bum. Throwing Mike Thomas under the bus is not exemplary of the leadership the University of Illinois has so desperately needed for the last ten years or more. I don't believe it will get any better.

But, Interim Chancellor Wilson insists we need to Move Forward ... regardless of where "Forward" really is. As George Harrison wrote, "If you don't know where you're going any road will take you there."

Where is Jack Peltason when we need him.

wayward wrote on November 09, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Maybe the chancellor's comments could be translated this way: "He was a good fundraiser, but he still has to go for hiring that buffoon of a football coach."

Illinifan2000 wrote on November 09, 2015 at 8:11 pm

You have the audacity to pay a person $2.5 million for completely failing to do their job. 

He didn't manage Beckman, Groce and certainly not Bollant. 

Shameful message sent by the U of I. 

At an anticipated cost of over $1 million, the Franczek report is bought and paid for complete with all of the predetermined findings. 

mjerryfuerst wrote on November 10, 2015 at 9:11 am

I would love to be fired without cause for $2.5 million

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