CHAMPAIGN — Yes, he noticed the crowd. Or lack thereof. Official attendance for the first football game of the Mike Thomas era was listed at 45,154.
The actual headcount was considerably less than that.
"You'd like to be playing in front of a full house," the new athletic director said. "You can look at all of the different marketing pieces that hopefully would enhance those kind of crowds. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to winning and sustaining success and building a foundation that regardless of what your record is, people are going to show up and attend games at Memorial Stadium."
When he took over at Cincinnati, Thomas had a 35,000-seat stadium with less-than-capacity crowds. Half full.
By the time he left, the place was at 97 percent capacity.
"That's the same thing that we want to do here," Thomas said.
Thomas used a string of marketing tools to help build the crowds at Nippert Stadium. He also got the coaches involved.
"I think it's important for the coaches to get out in the community, regardless of what the community is like," Thomas said. "There, it's a pro city, so you need to be really active. It's not one of those situations where you can sit back and think things are going to fall in your lap. They're not."
Cincinnati had a difficult time drawing football powers to Nippert Stadium. So, the school decided to play big-time games, including Oklahoma in 2010, at the Bengals' home: Paul Brown Stadium. Louisville and West Virginia will visit the building this season.
At Illinois, Thomas said he will be heavily involved in football scheduling. While the 2012 nonconference games are set, there are holes in the 2013 and 2014 schedules.
"I'll be the key person," Thomas said. "I have been at other schools in which I've worked. It will be in conjunction with the football coach. Certainly, I would want to get their input before any final decisions were made on future football schedules."
Thomas will sit down this week with members of the football program to look at the philosophy of scheduling. One possibility in the future is playing an occasional game in Chicago, Thomas said.
"If you're going to have a presence up there, you need to figure out a way to get in front of those people," Thomas said. "You certainly don't want to do it to dilute the experience of the people in Champaign. I think it's definitely something we need to look at."