Stepping out of his One Main condo in downtown Champaign, Mike Thomas finds T-shirt weather on a blissful September evening.
His reads "Denver Broncos Football." It conveniently doubles as a display for his pro sports allegiances and the orange-and-blue scheme of his new college program, Illinois. Mike is joined by his daughter, Meredith, on an exploratory tour of their new neighborhood.
And there are big decisions to be made. It's suppertime. He is looking for a good burger.
"Farren's Pub. Can't beat it," Thomas is told. "Walk straight up this street. Next to the parking structure, on the right."
Ah, progress. Three nights ago Mike and Meredith ate frozen pizza. The next night they had reheated frozen pizza. Assuming the top position in a Big Ten athletic department with a $74 million operating budget — and starting the same week as the football season opener — has a way of limiting grocery runs.
"Where's the best supermarket?" Thomas asks.
Plus, they are awaiting Mom's arrival from Cincinnati, where Jeni Thomas is busy preparing their home for sale after six years next to the Ohio River. It's now a month since Thomas was hired away from the University of Cincinnati to replace Ron Guenther as the 18th athletic director at Illinois.
He arrives at a critical juncture for the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. It's a time when no one is really certain which direction the arrow is pointing for the revenue sports — football and men's basketball. Memorial Stadium appeared half empty for the football opener as Ron Zook's program searches for the first back-to-back bowl wins in program history. Bruce Weber's basketball program has endured a relative lull after a historic high, having reached the 2005 NCAA title game but finishing outside the AP Top 25 in five straight seasons.
Which way will the money-makers go from here?
This watershed time doesn't stop at wins and losses. The 48-year-old basketball arena is a landmark in some eyes, outdated to others, and when compared to most of its Big Ten peers, crying out for renovations. Thomas already has indicated the Assembly Hall is a priority — possibly his first high-profile priority — and last week attended his first meeting to discuss its future.
And there is the perception Illinois athletics are not as big in Chicago — the homebase for roughly 220,000 alumni — as they should be.
"I'll tell you this: Mike Thomas is not going to cede Chicago to Northwestern. That won't happen," says Mike Waddell, the AD at Towson State and the only administrator to work under Thomas at Akron and Cincinnati. "He's not afraid to go up there and build that brand in Chicago."
So, given the major developments that could be coming, it's a good thing Thomas wakes every day at 5 a.m., to maintain his athletic physique with a jog through campus or to find a downtown coffee shop that opens at 6.
"He's a hard-charger now," Waddell adds. "I don't know what his administrative team is like (at Illinois). But if people think they're working hours and not a job they'll be mistaken."
Yes, to put it lightly, the new AD has a full itinerary.
He needs a good burger.
First, the dirt.
"Something you don't know about Mike? He's directionally challenged. I know that," jokes Bob Arkeilpane, the Cincinnati interim AD who succeeded Thomas. "When he came to us, his nickname from Akron was 'On Star.' He certainly lived up to it.
"I would follow him out of a building. If he went right, I went left."
Born and raised in Colorado, Thomas always had a 14,000-foot compass to rely on.
"It's easy out there. In Denver, the mountains, that's west," he says with a laugh.
Not as easy: securing a spot at the family's dinner table. Mike is one of 10 kids. The Thomases had to load up two station wagons to attend church every Sunday.
"I'm No. 5, right in the middle," says the 51-year-old Thomas. "So I always tell people I can manage up as well as manage down."
He appreciates food, whether it is taking a tour of the original Chipotle in Denver ("The manager said, 'This is the original grill and gave us a T-shirt") or eating Mexican at the Blue Bonnet Caf in Denver ("It's so good my wife freezes it and brings it home for us"). Dearest to his heart is his late mother's Italian food. She was from the Abruzzo region in Italy, and Thomas once visited the area with an interpreter to meet about 30 distant relatives.
"With nine siblings, you learn quickly: Don't be late for dinner. Or it's not happening."
Mike and Jenifer met as undergrads at Colorado State. He showed his resourceful side in their second meeting in a campus library. Forgetting her name, he glanced at a piece of mail sitting on the table. It was addressed to "Mary," her first name.
"But obviously she had been introduced as Jeni, which is what she goes by," he says. "So I blew that one right off the bat."
He recovered. Their four kids soon will celebrate Mom and Dad's 29th wedding anniversary. Jeni Thomas works in the legal field and has no problem winning at home, he says.
"I've never won an argument with her," Thomas says. "I'm about 50-50 with the kids. With her I'm 0-5,000."
Thomas started college on an academic scholarship at Southern Colorado. He played on the basketball team as a shooting guard. "I was one of those guys that couldn't jump and I wasn't really that fast. I could just shoot," he says. A sharp memory recalls his prep playing career.
"As a sophomore I was on varsity. My first game was against Denver East and (Purdue great) Joe Barry Carroll," Thomas says. "We beat him. I remember the score. It was 63-54."
But in a lunchtime conversation at Destihl, the dialogue often turns back to his family.
"I believe family is the most important thing there is," he says.
He was, in fact, on a family vacation at Smith Mountain Lake, Va., when the UI called to interview him for a position that had not been available since Guenther's hire in 1992. In his time at Cincinnati there were 8-10 overtures from BCS programs he didn't pursue, Thomas says.
"It could have been about fit. And there were some (other jobs) that were going on at the same time as Illinois," Thomas says. "But I have an appreciation for the Midwest. And I think the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, when you look at academics and athletics.
"I'll tell you, the people here are wonderful, and we haven't lost a game yet. The soccer team hasn't lost yet (it's now 5-2), the volleyball team hasn't lost yet and the football team hasn't lost yet. The first time we lose it's going to be my fault."
His family understood why he had to leave the vacation, of course, but shared a message.
"They told me, 'Please go, but you better get the job.' "
Administrators that have worked with Thomas say there's been a commonality on all of his staffs: he wants that family atmosphere to carry into the workplace. At Cincinnati or Akron it wasn't unusual for Thomas to have coworkers over for an Irish band in his garage or a Mexico-themed party complete with margaritas.
"One more thing. From a personal standpoint, I'm a big hugger," says UC women's basketball coach Jamelle Elliott, a Connecticut assistant when Thomas hired her in 2009. "One of the things I'm going to miss about Mike is that every time I saw him, after games or an event, I always looked forward to that hug. You always knew you had his support."
Thomas has been there for serious issues, as well. Waddell, the current Towson State AD, chose to become a living donor when his father needed a liver transplant. But his employer wouldn't allow him to take a medical leave of absence and remain under their insurance coverage. Thomas told Waddell to come work for him at Akron.
"He wasn't my best friend. But we knew each other a little," Waddell says. "So I went there, worked a month, had the surgery and was gone for two months and then came back. I can't tell you what that means when your dad is in deteriorating health like that."
Just as family is held to a standard — one of his sons played football at Cincinnati before an intense courseload forced him to focus on academics — so are those that work for Thomas.
One thing Thomas isn't: Scared of holding staff and coaches accountable.
"He hires people around him that he trusts," says Robin Martin, who left her position as a head AD to become an associate AD at Cincinnati with Thomas. "When we got here we changed our whole entire staff (in academics). We implemented a number of concepts to make that unit the best it can be."
Professionally, Thomas is approaching the Illinois job like a basketball coach might lean on his trusted system.
"I've done this exercise a couple times, so I know how to do it. And I don't anticipate the template of how I do it changing," he says. "But it takes some time to know who the players are and who your constituents are."
Colleagues say his "template" consists, in summary, of providing coaches and staff with the necessary resources, then trusting they will get the job done.
"He is not a micromanager. He expects you to do what you were hired for," says Waddell, adding, "He's scrappy. That comes from his roots. And he didn't come from all the money in the ACC (for example). He's seen what it's like at Denver or Akron."
Thomas maintained a low profile while heading a Big East program at Cincinnati, according to media who covered the program. Which sticks with the placard in his old office that read: "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit." Multiple colleagues described him as "a behind-the-scenes guy," and Thomas explains he comes from an internal background, not an external one.
"Mike is kind of the Al Pacino character in 'The Devil's Advocate,' " Waddell says. "You never see him coming."
His sideline demeanor is reserved, as well. When one of his hires, Brian Kelly, led Cincinnati football to the Orange and Sugar Bowls, Thomas says he was "very relaxed" during the games. The same was true when he attended the basketball team's return to the NCAA tournament in March.
"My wife takes losses harder than I take losses," Thomas says.
Cincinnati needed a thick-skinned AD when Thomas arrived. His hire came two months after popular basketball coach Bob Huggins resigned under pressure. Thomas later had to decide whether to retain interim coach Andy Kennedy, arguably the people's choice to replace Huggins. Thomas trumped the popular vote and hired Mick Cronin to reconstruct the devastated program. (Think Indiana, post-Kelvin Sampson. The roster had one scholarship player and a 6-foot-4 football linebacker defending Greg Oden in the John Wooden Tradition.) The rebuild took time — on the court and in the classroom. The program's multi-year APR score had bottomed out at 782 (a score of 925 can trigger penalties) and had risen to 992 last year, Thomas says.
"I think the men's basketball situation, with what Mick inherited, is great," says Thomas, who takes a tight-lipped approach to coaching searches.
"I think one of his strengths, for sure, is hiring coaches," says Arkelpaine, the interim AD at Cincinnati.
Considering the basketball mess at Cincinnati, Illinois might seem like Camelot, with Weber's dedication to academics and compliance. Thomas has a lofty vision for Illinois basketball. However, he recognizes the program has achieved elite status only in stretches.
"Has there been previous evidence to tell you that can happen? You have to say yes. It's just a matter of can you sustain it," he says. "Obviously I'm aware — and people that know basketball are aware — that Illinois has enjoyed stretches of success. We just need to get to the point where we do what we've done in the past but sustain it."
His brief introduction to Illinois football has been a mixed bag. The positives include a Texas Bowl win last December; the negatives include an announced crowd of 42,212 at the 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
"When I arrived at Cincinnati the stadium was basically half full," he says. "And last year it was at 97 percent capacity."
"You want to build a (football) program where you have sustained success, so when you have a down year, people aren't jumping off the bandwagon," he adds. "An example of that is Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech years ago — I think Frank Beamer was at one time in jeopardy of losing his job. Now that place is a madhouse.
"And because of their success, they can survive a down year and not lose a beat with their fans. They're still going to show up and support the program. That's your hope."
Thomas isn't scared to test the norm, according to former colleagues. At Cincinnati he established the goal of winning a Big East championship in every sport within five years, a staffer said. Martin said the academic issues in men's basketball led to a staff overhaul in that department. On at least three occasions Thomas hired a head AD from another program to join his staff as an associate AD.
"I know I'm not always going to be the smartest person in the room. I get that. It might be dangerous if I am," says Thomas. "And I don't want a bunch of 'yes' people around me. I also know that if I hire the right kinds of people, it's going to enhance the growth of our department. And they're going to want to come to work every day, knowing they will be faced with certain responsibilities. And for me that's always kind of been the template."
On Tuesday, Thomas visited Ubben Basketball Complex and addressed the Illini prior to a workout. He's had time only for a few conversations with Weber, but one of his first messages concerned a hot topic.
"One thing he did talk to me about was trying to get more of a presence in Chicago," Weber says.
The concept sounds super in theory. Still, it has happened roughly as often as Illinois has owned the Chicago recruiting scene.
"That was one of our challenges at Cincinnati, building a presence in a city that's all about pro sports," says Thomas. "With Brian (Kelly, the football coach), we were playing in a pro city and we needed to get people involved with our program. So he needed to have that personality. And Brian could sell ice to the Eskimos."
Thomas has been known to incorporate outside-the-box measures to turn heads. When LeBron James played his high school games at the University of Akron's arena, Thomas took advantage.
"We would take a photo of the St. Vincent-St. Mary's games — colorize it to fit our colors — and throw it in our media guide," Thomas says.
Given the short time he's been on the job, Thomas still is feeling out his surroundings. Case in point: his collection of orange-and-blue neckties is limited to six. It would be more, Thomas says, had he not given away his neckwear from a stint at the University of Virginia.
"Amazingly, I've gotten three or four orange ties as gifts since I was named AD."
Expanding his wardrobe is lower down the list. With the timing of his hire and the hot-button issues looming, the new AD has a full plate.
"Like I told Bruce (Weber), if I had been hired a month earlier, I would have been eating pasta with them in Italy (on their August basketball tour)," Thomas says with a laugh. "Instead, I'm eating at Biaggi's."