Seated in his second-floor Bielfeldt office, Mike Thomas is generally isolated from the grumbling that has swept through Illini Nation after a 2-10 football season.
He doesn’t read newspapers or anonymous message boards. He didn’t see a need to formally confirm Tim Beckman’s status as football coach. No, not even when a Chicago radio station incited the fandom with a report that Thomas had another coach in mind.
So Thomas was surprised at the attention and headlines he drew when he answered a query matter-of-factly, “Tim Beckman will be our coach next season.”
On Friday, Thomas expanded: “The report that I was interested in anyone else was absolute nonsense.”
He described his work with Beckman as “a collaborative effort.”
The status of Beckman’s staff is another question. Thomas said it was inappropriate to discuss these personnel matters at this juncture. The likelihood of some changes is strong, and assistant coaches at other schools (where head coaches have been fired) are watching this closely.
Like any CEO, Thomas will want to hear Beckman’s business plan and staff adjustments after a season of faulty performances ... everything from X’s and O’s to the January enrollees in what could be a 29-player crop of new recruits.
Beckman, like John Groce and Matt Bollant hired by Thomas in Year 1 on the job, remains the gridiron leader but has already lost a segment of his following. Thomas will oversee a 2013-14 budget that must project a dropoff in attendance, even though some opponents like Wisconsin and Ohio State are expected to bring large fan contingents.
Ticket sales are critical to the UI budget. Using round numbers, if the paid attendance drops from 46,000 to 36,000, that’s $3.5 million lost at $50 a seat for seven games. But Thomas is elated over premium seating, stating that the sales of suites and Colonnades seating are strong.
Do you feel misrepresented at times? Mirroring your earlier, rumor-filled search for football and basketball coaches, the past week has been packed with more airborne falsehoods. A report by 670 The Score in Chicago had you negotiating with a possible replacement for UI football coach Tim Beckman.
That was absolute nonsense. As I’ve shared, even publicly on radio shows locally at the end of the season, Tim and I are involved in a collaborative effort, and we will work it out together. I was clear in that regard. I didn’t think it was necessary to make a formal statement. Tim not coaching for us next year was never a consideration, so I didn’t think anything formal was required. I was responding to a question here on the radio, and I answered it (that Beckman will continue). It’s wrong for anyone to think it was anything other than that. Anyone who believes I was reaching out to another coach is totally wrong.
That isn’t the only case. For instance, how is your relationship with previous coaches you’ve hired, not including Ron Zook and Bruce Weber? There are rumors out there ...
I don’t know how any of that got started. You can ask them ... Brian Kelly, Mark Dantonio, Mick Cronin, Butch Jones. We have good relationships.
Fans are desperate to win. They saw you fire Zook when he lost six straight and crumbled in the finale at Minnesota. Then Beckman lost nine straight and disintegrated at Northwestern. This is a university where the faculty pushed out President Michael Hogan in 20 months, and many were reasoning: If a football coach fails, why can’t he be fired after a year? (Wasn’t) the widespread dissatisfaction strong enough to deserve an immediate clarification from you?
It is understandable from a fan standpoint. We have great fans and quality people. They are disappointed and frustrated. I’m disappointed and frustrated. And I can say the same for Tim and his staff and the student-athletes. We need to build a foundation that will make us competitive in the Big Ten Conference.
What makes you think it will get better?
Pick the sport and there were a lot of coaches who had rough starts and are now sitting in the Hall of Fame. Conversely, you’ve had those who inherited a good program and ran it into the ground. So I think it’s a little early after 10 or 11 months to say we’re not going to get there. Do we have a ways to go? Absolutely.
For clarification: If an assistant football coach is earning $200,000, and he is fired this month, the university would owe him that amount for the coming year, less whatever he might make in his job next year. If he earned $200,000 at his next stop, he would be owed nothing. Is that correct?
That is right. But it is too early to be talking in those terms. When we sit down, Tim and I will consider the coaches and the support staff and all the things that are important.
Did you expect this kind of scrutiny and in seeing so many people upset? Zook and Bruce Weber had their backers. It appears there is no way you can make everybody happy.
I don’t know of any AD who’s been 100 percent. I make decisions based on the student-athletes and the institution and, at the end of the day, we all have the same goals: win games and graduate our student-athletes.
Beckman returned overnight from his California recruiting trip, brought 10 juniors to Friday’s QB Club meeting and made the rounds of every table to shake hands. In the PR department, as he demonstrated last summer, he works hard.
Tim and his staff did everything on the external side that you’d want them to do. He has shown high energy in promoting the program. He raised expectations, but you still have to win games.
When you discuss the future with Beckman, what will be your main points?
We’ll look at the past year and discuss many things. It could be what happened on the field, it could be X’s and O’s, it could be game management, and where we are in recruiting, and what resources I might be able to provide.
What do you think when you see fans leaving the stadium early?
We don’t want that happening. We have to earn it and be relevant for four quarters. It has to be taken care of on the field so they won’t have reason to leave.
The Chicago market remains a tough nut to crack. Are you getting any closer?
I probably should not have said “Team of Chicago,” I should have said the state. But Chicago is primary to us. We are making inroads but, as I said in the beginning, this won’t be like flipping a switch. It will take time. The university is going through some planning initiatives and some branding issues up there, which are in the final stages. We are chipping away. We have billboards in Joliet and Springfield and going up in Chicago and St. Louis. Chicago is a piece of the master plan. We are in the process of developing a Chicago athletic advisory board — a dozen or so influential people — that we will use as a resource for branding, marketing and recruiting.
How will you promote the Washington game at Soldier Field?
We’ll promote it like any other. I’ve had a lot of Chicago people since my arrival saying we need another game in Chicago. Hopefully those people will show up.
When Morgan Burke, Purdue AD, fired coach Danny Hope, he expressed the concern that the Boilermakers had lost one-third of their fan base. They announced attendance at around 45,000 but had only about 30,000 showing up. Isn’t this comparable to what’s happening at Illinois?
There might be some similarities there. Where we are attendancewise, if you look back in our history, is where we’ve been before. That’s not where we want to be. I said early on that you can do a lot of marketing and offering specials, but if you want fans to show up consistently you have to win football games.
You and I seem to operate at different levels of the fandom. Your donors are obviously more optimistic about the program’s future than the people I read and mingle with. Both want to see Illinois succeed, but my connections are more grumpy and far less optimistic about it. You say you don’t read newspapers or message boards, and you avoid the background chatter.
I do get some grumblers. And I can’t defend a 2-10 football season. It is what it is. I’ve been doing college athletics for 27 years, and this is the first time I’ve experienced a 2-10 season. It is foreign to me. I know Illinois has had seasons like that in the past, but that doesn’t make it OK. There are anonymous comments being made, and I don’t go there. You have to separate fact from fiction. Personally, people have been terrific to me. I meet a lot of quality fans. Whether we’re 2-10 or 10-2, it doesn’t change where I go or how I run my life.
Who had the roughest fall, you or wife Jenifer?
Ha ha. She is a great fan and takes things hard. But she’s a great AD’s wife. No one is happy with the season. We have to figure out how to fix this thing and be consistent.
When you set the budget for the 2013-14 school year, will you anticipate a drop in attendance?
Certainly, yes. We have to begin to develop a budget based on anticipated gate receipts. It’s a primary revenue source.
You’ve traveled all over the countryside in fundraising efforts for the Assembly Hall. Does the football downturn affect those efforts to raise money for the renovation?
This is not something I’ve observed so far. Our November fundraising for the I-Fund exceeded our goal, and we’ve been in conversation with three or four people regarding different capital initiatives and endowments. That’s been met in a very positive way. I’ve been out every day in regard to the Assembly Hall, and people are excited about that project.
What about the suites and club seats at Memorial Stadium? We hear rumors that there may be a dropoff?
Our premium opportunities are going great. We’ve had a little bit of attrition, and we’ve quickly filled in the blanks. We had a new lease-holder this week who signed a 10-year commitment. As for our Colonnades Club seats, we have a list to choose from if we have attrition. There is a good chance, not a sure thing, that we will sell all of our suites for the first time.
With a goal of raising $160 million, do you have formal architectural renderings to present to potential Assembly Hall suite-holders?
I have material to share with them, and people are very interested in those premium opportunities. We are on schedule.
What is that schedule?
It is our goal to put the funding model together (money committed) and have it in place by late spring. If we can pull that off, we can move forward to gain approval and hopefully be ready to break ground by the spring of 2014. In the most ideal situation, 2014 is the goal. But everything would have to go perfectly.
What’s your reaction to the statement that the college sports model has been shattered with outrageous conference alignments, ridiculous salaries and money ruling all?
Depending on the lens you look through, we are in a different day. For a fan base accustomed to us doing business with traditional rivals, and having familiarity with those we compete against, certainly in the future that looks different. Whether we find a comfort level, it’s hard to say. But with costs going up and with people trying to improve their standard of support for their programs, that’s certainly driving a lot of these decisions.
Did you have any input and are you happy to have Maryland and Rutgers coming into the Big Ten?
The athletic directors were part of that discussion. The conference has done its due diligence and has been very proactive in seeing what makes the most sense in moving forward. As it relates to building our footprint and TV sets, it makes a lot of sense to go to Washington, D.C., and up to New Jersey and New York. When we get into our next TV negotiations (in 2017), having those programs as part of our membership will help us. Those of us already in the conference won’t be made any less whole by adding Maryland and New Jersey.
Are you concerned about the possibility of Illinois leaving the Leaders Division, with natural rivals Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue, and going into the Legends Division?
We obviously have a comfort level where we are today, but things are cyclical. We might say that’s a tougher side of the conference, and maybe not. Some teams look different today than they might have 10 years ago. We’ll be having those discussions.
John Groce’s basketball team is off to a good start. What’s your reaction?
I’m impressed with the energy and effort and confidence that they’ve demonstrated. They’re a fun team to watch. But it’s a long season, and the conference has three of the top teams in the country. But what’s happened bodes well for the future.
Worriers point to seniors Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey, D.J. Richardson and Sam McLaurin carrying the team and wonder if they can be replaced next season?
They are contributing in a big way. They’re helping to put a foundation in place. John has a solid recruiting class and is building it for the future,
Illinois will be hosting the NCAA tennis tournament, will conduct the Big Ten wrestling championships at the Assembly Hall and has an NCAA volleyball regional on the agenda. That sounds like a lot of work for you and your staff.
Those things go in cycles. We hosted cross-country last year. Any time you can bring new people to campus and show what we have to offer, it is a big deal for us.
How is Kevin Hambly handling the rough volleyball season after finishing second in the NCAA?
Kevin is disappointed, but he’s excited about the future. He lost two All-Americans from that second-place team, and he had a young team this year. I saw him playing lunchtime hoops at Ubben this week. He’ll be fine.
Here’s an old complaint: How do you sustain interest in track and field when you don’t host outdoor events? And why are there no wrestling meets on campus until Jan. 11?
Traditionally, the heaviest part of our wrestling schedule is after the first of the year. We’ve talked about track and field before. The importance of hosting one meet is important, and I get it that our teams want to travel and get away from these weather conditions. You guys do a nice job in telling the Ashley Spencer story, and it would be nice if people could come and see her and her teammates compete.