Tate: Work nowhere near finished for Thomas
Mike Thomas is going from the frying pan to the fire.
His first year at Illinois was unbelievably difficult. Late-season losing streaks in football and men's basketball ... the unavoidable ouster of three important Illini coaches ... contract payouts totaling more than $7 million ... reshaping of the department's athletic staff ... taking over the monstrous Assembly Hall task ... learning the ropes of the community and the state.
"In our business, it is not really that usual," the Illini athletic director said. "I met with the Iowa State AD recently, and he not only had to make coaching changes in football and basketball, but wrestling as well. And you know how big wrestling is in Iowa."
Jamie Pollard, the Cyclones' seven-year AD, has also replaced coaches in soccer, gymnastics, track, cross-country, tennis and softball.
So, on one hand, the Thomas moves "were extremely difficult," but they weren't record-setting.
Now, as we look ahead, the past year ending in August may be looked upon as easier than the new year starting in September.
On to the next step
How could that be?
Consider first that the strong-willed AD had control of the UI staff's reorganization. He made the calls. He fired and hired the coaches. He set the internal structure. He made the rules. He was in control.
The next task — let's call it Phase II — is vastly more complex because it revolves around an almost uncontrollable issue: Winning! That's the next step. And that means winning in the money sports of football and men's basketball.
Having named Tim Beckman as football coach, Thomas has completed his football assignment. Thomas has relinquished the ability to control how the team performs against Western Michigan on Sept. 1 in Memorial Stadium.
In basketball, Thomas has made the major decision, and he is now at the mercy of results when they start pouring in from St. Louis, Chicago and Maui.
The Illini are doing very well in most of the non-revenue sports. Ron Guenther's south-campus construction program of the past 20 years has created strong, advantageous facilities for golf, tennis, soccer, baseball and softball operations. Men's gymnastics and volleyball finished first and second nationally under vibrant, young coaches Justin Spring and Kevin Hambly.
That's fine. But more than anything else at this point, Illinois needs victories in football and men's basketball. By comparison, you could almost say — OK, this is going a bit far — that nothing else matters.
When the book on Guenther is written, it will say he did a bangup job in raising funds, in compliance and academic support, in providing facilities across the board, and in producing a fair share of winning squads.
But his favorite, the gridiron sport in which he starred, never found consistency. His carefully-managed hires failed. At the same time, basketball has been on a downward slide since the 37-2 explosion in 2005.
These, as everyone knows, are the two sports that matter. And Thomas must now sit back and see whether his new coaches can get a handle on what developed into wrong-direction stampedes: six straight regular season football losses and a 2-12 finish in basketball.
Grinning is winning
"Winning is critical," he said. "We've got to move the needle. We need to be in the top tier of the Big Ten. There are a lot of eggs in the baskets of these two sports and, in this conference, everyone wants to win."
This is a tall order. New football coach Beckman has already mentioned uncertainties in the offensive line, lack of depth in the defensive front four and an aerial game lacking in proven receivers.
Meanwhile, Michigan has returned swiftly as a national powerhouse and joins the upper half of a Big Ten — Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State — boasting vastly larger fan bases, greater resources, more quality returnees and higher-ranked incoming talent.
Before you raise an eyebrow about Penn State — yes, the Illini had the Nittany Lions on the ropes in a 10-7 loss — note that they were 9-3 in the regular season despite the most trying year internally in PSU history.
John Groce faces a similar challenge in basketball where Indiana has regained its elite status, Ohio State and Michigan State won't be easily dislodged, Trey Burke's return keeps Michigan on the move, Wisconsin has never finished lower than fourth under Bo Ryan, and Minnesota's NIT runners-up are expecting powerhouse Trevor Mbakwe to return.
Worse yet, Illinois lost center Meyers Leonard and has no incoming freshmen while all their Big Ten rivals are beefing up with young talent.
With respect to optimists who make any glass half-full, your favorite Las Vegas oddsmaker would be hard-pressed to agree. These are, in both cases, steep hills to climb.
With dust from his early months settling, Thomas will turn from primarily internal duties to a second year of extended external work.
"This is my third AD job, and it always takes six months or more to get the right people in the right seats," he said. Staffing is pretty much resolved with Jason Lener as his strong No. 2 man, and Vince Ille and Susan Young as senior associate ADs.
As for the September games, he'll serve like other ADs as essentially a cheerleader while concentrating on public relations, corporate relations, fundraising and ongoing evaluations. And he is already putting together a five-year strategic plan that includes an in-depth study of each sport.
"As administrators, our job is always to put our programs in the best position to be successful," he said.
Using soccer as an example, UI training and competitive venues will be studied, cost and a timeline for a new venue will be projected, endowment dollars will be sought, travel and recruiting expenditures will be reviewed and a foreign trip weighed.
With some sports "farther along than others," each will be handed reasonable expectations, mindful that variables arise that can't be controlled.
Thomas appears open to reasonable suggestions. When the volleyball team sought a charter flight to Nebraska, he approved that months ago.
And then there's Huff Hall. Revealing a three-year plan, all of this requiring DIA-raised funds (while still seeking millions for the Assembly Hall), Thomas plans to spruce up Huff's interior look in 2012, install a new floor in 2013, and replace all the permanent seating in 2014.
On the schedule
Nonconference scheduling remains a critical part of Thomas' job, and it is an area he intends to stay involved in.
Basketball fans have grumbled for years about a slate that offers little at home in November and December while the Illini engage in high-level tests on the road. A season ticket is valuable in terms of Big Ten play, but it isn't very enticing this year with a home slate offering Colgate (8-22 last year), Towson (1-31), Gardner-Webb (12-20), Western Carolina (17-18), Norfolk State (26-10) and Eastern Kentucky (6-16) joining ACC rival Georgia Tech (11-20) at the Assembly Hall.
The football schedule is similar, something of a fluke actually, with the most attractive games on the road at Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern.
The seven home games are "winnable," which is good in that sense, but they're not the kind that fill the stadium: Western Michigan (7-6), Charleston Southern (0-11), Louisiana Tech (8-5), Penn State (9-4), Indiana (1-11), Minnesota (3-9) and Purdue (7-6).
Said Thomas: "Different ADs vary in terms of scheduling philosophy. We will look for balance, the 'sweet spot' in this regard. It might depend on the status of our teams. We might schedule differently in a few years than we do now.
"But, yes, I want schedules in football and basketball that are attractive to fans. We all like to see big-name teams. We will look closely at this."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.