In Catholic grammar school, Sister Sara would have her ruler out for the likes of Mike Thomas. She’d be tapping him for having his hand in too many pies.
You might find the Illini athletic director in Los Angeles one weekend studying renovated Pauley Pavilion, and then in Phoenix with the Fiesta Bowl executives, all the time keeping an eye out for an Illini alum (Jerry Colangelo, Mannie Jackson?) with available dollars.
Back in Champaign-Urbana, there he is at an Illini baseball game or checking on arrangements for the NCAA Tennis Championships here this month. And then there’s the Assembly Hall/State Farm Center. He’ll be front and center May 29 when the long-awaited renovation plan is finalized with the UI Board of Trustees.
Nearing 21 months on the job, Thomas is C-U’s man on the move. No one works harder or under a brighter spotlight. But are these around-the-clock weeks more than one 53-year-old man can handle? Is burnout a concern?
“I get away for a little free time in the summer,” he said before the weekend excursion to Phoenix. “This is a seven-day job. I love what I do, and I exercise every day. It is easier as far as balance of life because, at one point, we had four kids at home. When I was at the University of Denver, I was working 100 hours at something less than minimum wage, and with three kids.
“You always try to make sure you spend enough time with the family but now, with only Meredith at home, I don’t have to focus on that so much. And (wife) Jeni loves what we do. The family can participate because they love going to games, and we still see them a lot with all our activities. Jeni will tell you, and it’s true, I have never awakened in the morning and dreaded going to work. I love what I do.”
Monday’s announcement of a 30-year, $60 million agreement with State Farm stands out as Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas’ crowning achievement in a career that earned him the Neyland Outstanding Athletic Director Award at Akron in 2005 and at Cincinnati in 2008.
But football season is approaching, and this is another story. Illinois has lost 14 straight Big Ten games. The attendance has fallen for the last five years from an average of 61,707 in 2008 to 49,546 in 2010, and then to 45,564 in 2012. And those are the “sold” numbers, not the increasingly smaller numbers in the seats.
Tickets are a tough sell in 2013.
“We see what is happening and it is complicated by the fact that attendance has been down nationally, even with teams that have traditionally had winning records over the years,” Thomas said.
“You’d be surprised at some attendance figures, including bowl games. But that doesn’t make me feel any better. First and foremost, we need to win games. That is No. 1. And No. 2, more so than ever, is the in-game experience. It is easy for people to stay home and watch on a 60-inch TV and have the conveniences of home.
“Football is a day event for those who attend. So while winning is the core piece in moving the needle, you package all those other things around the game itself.”
Other than offering support, financial backing and a new videoboard, the football operation left the control of Thomas after he named Tim Beckman as head coach. And now, as was the case with his predecessors, his ultimate grade as AD will be tempered by what happens on 12 Saturdays in the fall.
After May 29, that will become the overriding concern of Thomas and the DIA.
Extraordinary developments with the Assembly Hall/State Farm Center raised as many questions Monday as were answered. For example, what is the actual cost of renovation? Is it $157, $160 or $170 million? And what will be the actual size of the bond issue?
The number at this point is about $165 million. That is a flexible figure, an educated guess. When we include interest on the bonds, it could be anywhere from $260 to $300 million. If we receive more major gifts at the outset, this would reduce the amount we need to borrow. It’s like having a mortgage on a home. If you pay it off in 15 years instead of 30, you save a chunk of interest.
Is there still a chance you’ll locate more up-front money to reduce the amount to be borrowed?
We are having conversations along these lines with corporations and people. All have different means and different ways that they want to help the project. You might have to package it differently for different donors. We anticipate State Farm making the first payment ($2 million) before July 1.
Big Ten broadcast income, which in 1991 amounted to $2 million for an athletic department budget that was $5.8 million, is skyrocketing. You see the numbers. It’s $24 million now, and you’re expected to receive $43 million by 2017. It will grow annually from there as the UI budget sweeps past $100 million. Do you intend to use any of this money for the renovation?
I think there is a real opportunity to use some of that money for this project. That is not unusual in this conference. Our peers have used Big Ten payouts for some of their capital projects. We’ll consider that as we go.
This is the largest corporate gift to an athletic department. Once frowned on, corporate gifts for naming rights have become increasing popular. At Minnesota, the state is paying 48 percent of the $303 million football stadium that opened in the 2009, and TCF Bank got naming rights for the 50,805-seat facility by giving $35 million over 25 years. Comcast Corporation promised $20 million over 25 years for Maryland’s arena. Value Center donated $12.5 million to name the arena inside Ohio State’s Jerome Schottenstein Center. How did you and State Farm settle on 30 years and $60 million?
Thirty years is based on our mortgage, and also knowing that fits in with our debt service. In seeking $2 million per year, we bench-marked ourselves against others in college and pro sports and felt that was a number that worked well for us and for them. We did our internal research. I work closely with Rick Darnell and Warren Hood, and with other people on campus for particular aspects of it.
If improvements begin this summer, what will you be able to do?
For the most part it will be utilities work, not something that people get excited about. We will be laying the tracks for the heavy lifting in March 2014. And there are things we’ll be doing throughout the basketball season that won’t interrupt the games.
When documents are prepared, how much will you actually borrow?
That is fluid. When we look at that total number, it’ll depend on how much money we have early on. We’ll have to see how much money is front-loaded, or is paid in years 5 through 10. If we put more money in, we’ll be in better position in terms of what we would be paying at the end of the day.
Ticket purchasers for basketball games are concerned about a surcharge. Is that in the plans?
We haven’t finalized all our plans, and we have to fine-tune some of these things. We want to make sure we stay within a reasonable range and consistent with a fair market. We benchmark with our peers. We look at our competition and what makes sense for this community and our fan base.
Preliminary work for air conditioning the arena was undertaken years ago. When will it be completed?
There will be three stages, not counting this summer, and we aren’t yet sure what will happen during each stage in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Air conditioning will be included but we’re not sure when.
Radio broadcasts of Illini basketball and football games will be moving from WIND to a 50,000-watt station, 670 The Score, in Chicago. What was the cost?
We have been paying WIND about $325,000, and it will ultimately be in the neighborhood of $375,000 with WSCR. Basketball is set for the coming season and will include coaches’ shows on WSCR. Illini football will remain with WIND this season and will replace Northern Illinois on WSCR in 2014.
What are your thoughts as you see Illini football attendance dropping so precipitously from 61,707 in 2008 to the mid-40s? That is more than a 25 percent drop in five years. It is Tim Beckman’s job to win games. What can you otherwise do?
We have a lot of people who follow Illinois football in Chicago and other spots around the state. We’ve got to find the magic recipe from bringing them to Memorial Stadium, and it always comes down to what’s happening on game day ... winning games and providing a good experience.
You’re putting up a video display board four times the size of the old one, featuring all kinds of graphics and animation. There’ll be ribbon boards along the sides, and videoboards in the southeast and northeast corners. And you’ve expanded the $99 seats from the horseshoe into a second sideline section. What more can you do?
We’re doing everything we can to create the best experience possible. For those of us who work in college athletics, there’s not much better than a football game in autumn. Our scoreboard is supposed to be up by mid-summer, somewhere between mid-June to mid-July, and certainly before our first home game. We are making it as attractive as possible but, at the same time, we understand the necessity of winning games.
It has been reported that the Evanston event, which seemingly offended the Northwestern contingent, was changed on the Caravan schedule at the request of the hosting bar. Had you planned to go Wednesday? Give me your best politically-correct response.
Wherever our Caravan events are held, if I’m available, I plan to attend.
Since John Groce arrived, Illinois has granted scholarships to four transfer students and had two more making visits to campus this past week. Have you discussed this recruiting approach with Groce?
We have had those discussions. Absolutely. I’m fully on board knowing that we need to be sensitive to student-athletes and that they wind up in a good place. When you have attrition, it’s not just a one-sided equation. You have to figure out what is the best opportunity for the team and the student-athletes.
The DIA wired Bruce Weber a cool $1.3 million this past week, and will do so each April 30 for the next two years. In addition, you’ve sent Ron Zook two payments of $650,000 each and have two more coming in July and January, not to mention another $620,000 to Jolette Law ... it comes to more than $7 million for three head coaches not to coach. What impact is this having on the DIA budget?
We account for those things, and everything is good insofar as the budget is concerned. We are a department that traditionally operates in the black and, in fact, with a surplus. We can account for these things. Football attendance was down, and that affects the bottom line, but you have to feel that you have the best people in place.
The Big Ten has done an abrupt about-face and, with Rutgers and Maryland coming on board, has elected to split the new 14-team conference in 2014 into East and West divisions. Doesn’t this make more sense than the more competitively balanced but confusing Leaders-Legends arrangement?
I am very supportive of the new arrangement. I thought it made sense for us to wind up in the Central time zone and playing against like schools. I felt strongly this is where we needed to be.
Do you foresee divisions for other sports?
As of today, we have not had those discussions. You usually hear a little chatter behind the scenes before the formal meetings. I don’t know if it will gain traction. But I could see where you might play 12 basketball games (home and away) in your own division and play the other seven teams once apiece. Something like that might be attractive.
Your non-revenue teams have had considerable success in the 21 months since your arrival, winning the NCAA men’s gymnastics title, finishing second in volleyball, and capturing Big Ten titles in gymnastics, soccer, men’s golf (twice), women’s track and field and men’s tennis. In addition, both track teams are contenders in Big Ten action next weekend.
Last year we came in 21st, our second-best finish, for the Directors Cup, which is the report card for broad-based programs. Our goal is to reach the Top 10 with our 19 sports. There are Big Ten teams that have traditionally done well in this. We want to move up.
Back to finances: The NCAA tennis championships for men and women will be held here this month. What is the cost of undertaking something like this?
The cost has not been significant for us because we’ve had a lot of people step up to the plate to support the facility and our ability to host the event, and no one more so than Shahid Khan. He has been a tremendous ambassador for the university and our program. The first step was to build the facility, and this allows us to be the second Midwestern city to host it.
Are you worried that weather might interfere? Isn’t this the reason Notre Dame is the only school from the Midwest to host NCAA tennis finals?
I am not worried about the weather because you can’t control it. Let’s hope the stars align and we have great conditions for the NCAA championships.
No more financial questions, Mike. You can rest. Take Sunday off.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.