UI wheels, deals for free rides

UI wheels, deals for free rides

The University of Illinois' highest-paid employee also drives one of the snazziest cars you'll see in a Campustown lot — for free.

When men's basketball coach John Groce hits the road to watch a high school recruit play, he does so in style, in a 2015 BMW X5 valued at $68,075.

If his assistants travel separately, they each come in provided SUVs — Dustin Ford, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker all have 2015 Toyota Highlanders worth between $46,000 and $52,557.

Even Groce's wife, Allison, has the keys to a courtesy car — a 2016 Ford Explorer XLT (value: $46,480) that makes up the fifth vehicle in the men's basketball fleet provided by local dealerships to the athletic department.

All in all, 57 coaches, administrators and wives benefit from the "Fighting Illini Wheels" program, in which 33 separate dealers provide UI athletics with a collective $1,517,022 worth of cars, according to data obtained by The News-Gazette via open records requests.

"It's a perk of the position," said UI athletics spokesman Kent Brown, and not an uncommon one in major college athletics. Officials are allowed to drive the cars for personal and business use, and they have to pay for gas and regular maintenance.

Insurance and registration are handled by athletics. The benefit is taxable.

"It's a nice benefit for coaches," added Brown, whose free car — a 2015 Ford Focus, valued at $19,555 — is among the cheapest in the Wheels program. "It's a benefit for staff members who do a lot of driving. It gives dealers the ability to support the program in a unique way."

Through Brown, athletic director Mike Thomas declined an interview. Only Groce's BMW lists for more than Thomas' $55,000 2014 Hyundai Equus.

Recruiting tool?

For local dealerships, the vehicles they give to UI athletics qualify as a donation. Both sides benefit: In exchange, dealers receive tickets to Illini sporting events and advertising through the athletic department, among other things, Brown said.

The details of the program vary by dealer, but most donate new vehicles and either put a cap on mileage or months used, so they can still sell them as new or programmed when they're turned in.

Groce's car came care of Honda-BMW of Champaign. The odometer read 42 when he picked it up in June. Honda-BMW owner/manager Ben Quattrone said he asked Groce to keep the mileage under 5,000, so he can offer the person who buys it the same warranty he would have if it had never been driven.

Groce specifically requested a BMW, Quattrone said. If he plans to drive long distances, the coach will switch out cars so as not to put too much mileage on the X5, Quattrone said.

"It's a benefit to me because he's an ambassador of the product," Quattrone said of the only BMW in the 57-vehicle fleet. "He wouldn't drive the car if it's not what he liked."

In addition to having one of C-U's most recognizable faces behind the wheel of one of his cars, Quattrone said he also wants to support the university, which may lead to more UI business down the road.

And who knows? Maybe it will even help land the Illini a McDonald's All-American someday, Quattrone said.

"If he drives up in a BMW as opposed to a Chevrolet Trailblazer, maybe (Jahlil) Okafor ends up coming here instead of going to Duke," he said.

Not that there's anything wrong with Chevy SUVs: There are five in the Illini Wheels fleet — Traverses driven by interim football coach Bill Cubit, baseball coach Dan Hartleb and ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer; and Equinoxes for offensive line coach Tom Brattan and women's golf coach Renee Slone.

Jennifer Shelby was an active member of the program when she owned Shelby Motors in Champaign. So when she recently purchased two Hoopeston dealerships, it only made sense that she'd renew her relationship.

She's not just a donor; she's also an avid women's basketball fan — a board member of the Courtsiders and a regular at games.

Shelby doesn't feel like her two dealerships get any special bragging rights around town because coaches drive her cars. After all, she said, virtually every area dealer has at least one car in the program.

Killeen's arrangement

Three wives of UI athletics employees are in the program — Allison Groce; Kari Bollant, wife of women's basketball coach Matt (2013 Buick Enclave); and Mike Thomas' wife, Jenifer (2014 Hyundai Santa Fe).

For the entire rest of the UI's Urbana campus, six officials have take-home privileges of a motor vehicle. And in every case, those cars can only be used for official business.

All six are senior administrators who "travel occasionally, if not frequently, between all three of the campuses and other parts of the state," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy. The UI handles gas and insurance for the cars.

Hardy, one of the six, said he frequently travels between the three campuses, to the medical campuses in Rockford and Peoria and throughout Chicagoland in his 2016 Ford Fusion.

President Timothy Killeen doesn't get a vehicle as part of his UI package, but he can request one from the university motor pool. He can also ask for a driver, enabling him to get work done during the ride.

His presidential predecessor, Robert Easter, had similar privileges. From July 2014 to May 2015, he requested a car and driver 29 times — according to a senate report.

Company cars

One of the perks of being a UI head coach: The job comes with a new (or newish) free vehicle. Among the 57 coaches and athletic administrators with such deals are these high-profile head coaches (for the full list, visit news-gazette.com):

John Groce, men's basketball — 2015 BMW X5, $68,075 value

Mike Small, men's golf — 2014 Buick Enclave, $33,350

Matt Bollant, women's basketball — 2015 Jeep Cherokee, $32,000

Dan Hartleb, baseball — 2015 Chevy Traverse, $31,000

Brad Dancer, men's tennis — 2015 Jeep Compass, $30,375

Janet Rayfield, women's soccer — 2013 Chevy Malibu, $30,190

Bill Cubit, football (interim) — 2014 Chevy Traverse, $22,594

Kevin Hambly, volleyball — 2014 Dodge Avenger, $21,000


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Sid Saltfork wrote on October 11, 2015 at 9:10 am

State employees accepting gifts, perks, and monetary fees are in violation of the State of Illinois Ethics Act.  That means anyone who draws a state funded salary.  If a state motor pool vehicle is used for state business, it is okay.  However, vendors and others providing perks is illegal.  If the U of I Athletics is totally funded by outside money, it is okay.  If the salary has any state funding, it is illegal.   

Ethics seem to be ignored by the state's Flagship university.  The university prefers to act like a private university while it is still subject to state universities' rules, and regulations.

Now, what about dining out, tickets to events, vacations, and other perks?  What is good for the geese is good for the ganders too.

Amanda Purkeypile wrote on October 11, 2015 at 10:10 am

The spin that the dealers and the university have put on this "unique opportunity to support UI athletics" is appalling. Want to support UI athletics? Give a kid a scholarship. And the fact that some specifically request high priced cars is embarrassing. You're public employees- not walking advertisements for dealerships. With Illinois' current budget crisis, public employees (I am one of them- a public school teacher) are under fire and should show some respect for these difficulties and not abuse the privileges granted to them. It is these perceptions of abuse of public dollars (I know these are "donated" cars but perception is everything) that reflect poorly on those hard-working public employees whose annual salaries are LESS THAN the value of these perks. I am a proud Illinois alum (LAS '97) and would like to see some solidarity from upper level UI employees with the rest of the public employees whose jobs and livelihoods are on the line. I welcome a dialogue with any member of the University admin/faculty on this issue. 

BS_in_champaign wrote on October 11, 2015 at 5:10 pm

I would normally be the first to bash Athletics, but in this case it makes good business sense.  When these staff members travel around the state to recruit (official University business), assuming they are CU, they rely on motorpool ($0.44 per mile for a sedan $0.67 for an SUV).  If they are not campus based, they are reimbursed at $0.575 per mile. Chances are, these folks are driving thousands of miles per year to recruit while on official university business, so using these donations actually saves the university money because UIUC has corporate sponsors who are willing to pay for these services.  The alternative is to use university motorpool which, while they have perfectly fine vehicles, may not impress high school recruits.  (I routinely drive UIUC SUV's - trust me, they are workhorses and would not impress any high school recruit). 



Sid Saltfork wrote on October 12, 2015 at 11:10 am

How would you like your local state legislator driving around in a "donated" vehicle from Ameren?  What about the ones listed driving their own cars?  They earn enough to drive BMWs, Cadillacs, even Mercedes.  Corporate sponsors expect a role in decision making for the donations.  Sorry, but the rules and regulations of state employment does not allow for such things under the Ethics Act.  All other state employees are expected to drive their own vehicles, not even motor pool vehicles, during work assignments.  They, also, wait months for reimbursement.

However people rationalize this violation of ethics, it still is unethical under state employment.  It is just more ignoring of the state ethics act by the U of I.  It happens in employment, finances, and personal gain at the U of I regularly.  Look at the past scandals, and current scandals at the "flagship".

MasterOfTheObvious wrote on October 12, 2015 at 11:10 am

If every person driving one of these cars is being taxed on the fair market value, there is no violation of any ethics law here.  Pretty poor reporting again by the N-G, continuing a expanding trend.

GeneralLeePeeved wrote on October 12, 2015 at 11:10 am

I ageee.  These are simply job perks....some positions have them, some don't.  Wish mine did, but it doesn't.  I don't see everybody up in arms over the U of I President being provided a house?  ....or the fact that most faculty are allowed to take a paid sabatical every so-many years?  ...again, these are job perks.  People can be jealous all they want, but that doesn't make them unethical.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 14, 2015 at 11:10 am

People who support the perks forget that all of the recipents of the perks are state employees.  They, and the university are in violation of a simple rule in the state's Ethics Act.  If an employee in grants and contracts drove a "donated" car, everyone would be up in arms.  Sorry, the rules and regulations apply to every state employee.  The president's house is owned by the university, and vehicles in the motor pool are owned by the university.  With the salaries that these few receive, they have the money to buy their own vehicle.  Just another example of the university ignoring state laws.

Check out the comments on the article in the Springfield State Journal Register, and the Chicago and St. Louis newspapers.  They have no empathy for the favored few in U of I employment.  The U of I has lost much of it's flagship reputation over the years due to the never ending scandals.