CHAMPAIGN — Mike Thomas has seen rebellious throngs first-hand. Not as severe as Quasimodo in "Hunchback." But Thomas has weathered negativism.
The first-year Illini athletic director waded through the aftermath of Bob Huggins' ouster at Cincinnati, when a feverish fan base was frustrated about a controversial but highly successful basketball coach done in by academic shortfalls, a widely publicized DUI and player arrests.
Huggins' Bearcats won at least 25 games on 11 occasions, and qualified for 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Many Bearcat fans favored interim Andy Kennedy as successor after he went 21-13 as the 2006 fill-in. New to the job, Thomas instead chose Murray State's Mick Cronin, who promptly went 2-14 in the 2007 Big East season, not exactly a ringing endorsement in a city accustomed to more. After his struggles, Cronin's Bearcats were 26-9 last year, beating Missouri 78-63 in the NCAA tournament before losing to champion UConn.
And when Thomas arrived in October 2005, the football Bearcats were living down the embarrassment of a 70-7 loss to archrival Louisville in the final regular season game of 2004, and trudging through a 2-6 Big East season in 2005.
He has seen the face of negativism. Thus, the grumbling and mean-spirited nature of Illini Nation in 2011-12 — maybe the worst it has ever been — is not new to him. Any degree of pre-planning on his part would have made it obvious that, soon after his arrival, he might be required to make strategic decisions to retain or dismiss coaches in three major UI sports: football and both basketball programs. Like the rest of us, he knew. It didn't sneak up on him.
"The good," says Thomas, "is that Illinois has a fan base that is not apathetic. When people care about your program they're going to express their opinions. When we get to the point where people aren't vocal, you're probably in a worse place. I'll take a passionate fan base that wants to express an opinion over one that's disinterested. It's a greater problem trying to get people interested.
"I am supportive of our coaches. At the end of day we're all in this for the same reason. We want to win championships. As I said throughout the football process, it's not based on this season but on the overall picture. At the end of every season we'll study it."
A tough sell?
The football decision came easy after a season that ended with six straight losses. It's costly, but the Zook buyout (two years at $1.3 million each) and the extra $250,000 for staffers is being handled within a budget that now exceeds $70 million.
"The extra $250,000 increase for staff also includes one added person," Thomas said. "It all falls within the budget plan."
Might changes in other sports stress that budget?
"Money is always a consideration in making these decisions," Thomas said. "It is not the only consideration, but anyone who sits in my position and doesn't pay attention to finances is ultimately going to get himself in harm's way."
When it comes to money, football attendance is at the top of Thomas' to-do list. Illinois showed paid attendance of 45.419 for the final home game with Big Ten champion Wisconsin, and drew more than 51,000 just twice (against Ohio State and Michigan). With Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota on the home schedule this season, along with the likes of Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech, it'll be a tough sell for a disillusioned fan base.
"We'll begin with an internal audit of how game day functions," Thomas said. "It is so different from basketball where fans drive in, get out of their car, stay two hours and return home. In football it is a game-day event. We cater to a lot of people including kids. There are different constituencies and it's not just what's happening in the stadium but outside as well. We'll make a study on how we go about marketing and selling our program.
"At the end of the day winning cures all problems. If you throw a lot of marketing money at a program that isn't successful on the field it is not going to move the needle very much."
As noted, when Thomas arrived at Cincinnati, football was in the dumps.
"It was probably like a MAC school, like the old days when you had to worry about drawing 15,000 for a game in order to meet Division I regulations," he said. "The stadium was half full. We made some strong marketing moves, but the key was winning. In four of the last five years Cincinnati has won at least 10 games. When I left the stadium was at 97 percent capacity."
If Thomas and new coach Tim Beckman accomplish 97 percent capacity, everything else will take care of itself. And the UI might revert to becoming a "football school" instead of a so-called "basketball school." But when you analyze future football schedules, they'll be bucking long odds in that quest.
Chicago is critical to the UI, but there are aspects to this pro-oriented city that, try as they may, the University of Illinois can never control. This is true in terms of athletic and non-athletic enterprises.
"We have a plan," Thomas said, "and we'll work with the university at large. We have a lot of alumni and people up there that, even if they didn't go to school here, they follow us. The people who have Fighting Illini as part of their DNA, whether it's 5 percent or 95 percent, those are the people we need to capture in terms of recruiting or merchandise or raising money or selling tickets. And there are those who are unattached that we'd like to attract.
"Northwestern has a niche. Or if you're a die-hard Michigan, Notre Dame or Iowa fan, I'm not going to change your mind."
No small part of the Chicago problem is the constant flow of negativism on radio, TV and the Internet.
"People can always find something to be critical about," Thomas said. "We'll do what we can to change people's opinions. Right or wrong, when it comes to talk radio, being negative is usually what gets people to call in. I know. I was in Denver, another pro town. They weren't calling in about University of Denver hockey. It was the Rockies, the Broncos and the Nuggets. They don't call in to give somebody a pat on the back.
"We'll work at it. We have a brand. Is it a national brand? I think most people will tell you it isn't. That's something we need to continue to work on."
— Thomas met with Beckman on staff hirings, the AD saying: "My main concern, as always, is making sure that the people we hire have clean records. That's my focus. I don't want to get into a pattern of not doing things the right way. I discussed some of those coaches with Beckman. I knew some of them ... Tim Banks, Billy Gonzales. I generally let coaches hire their own assistants."
— The AD is waiting for the signed contract from the engineering and architecture firm that will lay out plans for the Assembly Hall renovation. Bruce Weber said the floor might be dropped as much as 15 feet. Said Thomas: "Their work could take three, four, five months, and then we'll have something tangible to sell (for naming rights)."
— Facility work is ongoing toward hosting the 2013 NCAA tennis tournament, and the bumpy St. Mary's Road between Fourth Street to Lincoln Avenue will be finished. Said Thomas: "This is a university project and we're doing the work ourselves. I am right now in the process of signing the paperwork."
— Mike Small's 300-yard sluggers will be able to haul out their drivers from the bays in the indoor golf facility. Thomas explains: "We already have the best indoor golf facility in the country. Now that a couple of buildings have been removed, we're finishing the outdoor portion."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.