AD's selection went quickly

AD's selection went quickly

CHAMPAIGN — Mike Thomas called his hiring as University of Illinois athletic director on Wednesday a whirlwind.

Apparently he so blew away the campus' highest powers-that-be that they wasted little time selecting the Cincinnati AD from the small pool of finalists — mere hours after meeting with Thomas earlier in the day.

To read columnist Loren Tate's take, click here.

"It has been a whirlwind, but really more so in the last four, five hours," Thomas said after a news conference at Memorial Stadium to announce his hiring.

Thomas indicated he was informed at about 2:30 p.m. — after UI President Michael Hogan, new campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise and exiting interim Chancellor Robert Easter had interviewed all the finalists Wednesday — that he had the job. A hastily called news conference was then scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Colonnades level of the stadium to publicly introduce the successor to Ron Guenther, who retired July 1.

"This is a terrific choice to lead the Fighting Illini program," said Wise, who is scheduled to begin her UI duties Oct. 1 and will be the campus administrator that Thomas reports to. "Mike has an incredibly strong record of building winning programs with the highest degree of integrity and academic excellence."

Thomas said he intended to be back in Champaign-Urbana full time no later than the Illini football opener Sept. 3.

"That's my plan," he said. "I certainly have some responsibilities (to wrap up) back in the Cincinnati area."

Terry Cole, who was scheduled to retire this month, will continue to serve as interim AD until Thomas' arrival.

Thomas, 51, received a five-year contract and will be paid $475,000 annually, with additional performance incentives. He also would earn a retention bonus after five years.

A 26-year veteran of college athletics administration, Thomas has developed a reputation as a strong fundraiser, an astute judge of coaching talent and a can-do leader in campus facilities expansion.

Since his arrival at Cincinnati in 2005, the Bearcats' donor base has nearly tripled, raising about $70 million for the athletic department. Thomas' initiatives at Cincinnati included securing funding for a new athletic center that includes practice fields for football and other athletic programs.

His 2006 hiring of current Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly  put the Bearcats on the national map in that sport — producing a 33-7 record in one three-year stretch, two Big East titles and a 12-victory season in 2009 capped by a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

Before arriving at Cincinnati, Thomas was the AD at Akron for five years after a seven-year stint as associate AD at Virginia.

While at Cincinnati, Thomas said he turned down other job opportunities, but he wasn't about to do that when contacted by UI officials.

"Coming to the University of Illinois is just an exceptional opportunity," Thomas said. "(It) has always been an institution that really was of keen interest to me. ... It's something that I wanted to pursue."

Thomas was asked about the UI athletic program's reputation in some circles as a sleeping giant.

"Whether you use the word sleeping giant or high ceiling — whatever you want to say — I think that there's room for growth here," he said. "And certainly it's my job to make sure I do whatever possible to make that happen.

"Talking to a lot of people, even in the (Big Ten) conference, they think there's a great opportunity here competitively and just to continue to grow what's already happened here."

Thomas said fundraising will be a major priority as he enters his new job and would be even if the UI wasn't currently intent on a costly upgrade of the Assembly Hall.

"Costs keep going up, including scholarship costs, so I think that's going to be key," Thomas said. "We've got to figure out on the revenue side how to bring in more dollars."

Another of Thomas' top priorities is to expand the visibility and name recognition of Illini athletics.

"I think we need to become better branded nationally," he said. "I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago.

"Our goal is be ... identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we'll work our way out from there."

Thomas indicated he would work toward developing an athletic program that was successful across the board. At the UI, he will oversee a department with 19 varsity sports, about 200 full-time employees and a budget of $67 million.

During Thomas' tenure at Akron, the school rose from last place to second among Mid-American schools in the annual Director's Cup all-sports rankings.

"I think I'm a guy for all sports," Thomas said. "I believe in a broad-based program. But I think to be broad-based really starts with football and men's basketball. They've got to be healthy. They've got to win.

"For me, it's all about all the student-athletes having an opportunity to compete at the highest level and win Big Ten championships and be on the national stage."

A graduate of Colorado State, Thomas previously lived in Illinois while earning a master's degree in athletic administration at Western Illinois.

"In fact, my oldest child was born in Macomb," he said.

Thomas and his wife, Jenifer, have four children. The youngest will enter her sophomore year of high school and attend school in C-U.

"So, actually, my wife might arrive here before me," Thomas said.

Comments embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

Illini1973 wrote on August 11, 2011 at 8:08 am
Profile Picture

Want to bring in $, then BringBacktheChief!!!!!!!!!!!

kfj wrote on August 12, 2011 at 10:08 am

Welcome to Illinois Mr. and Mrs. Thomas as well as your children. Best wishes and Go Iilini!