Thomas: 'We're moving the needle'
There’s work to do — for Mike Thomas and his Illinois football team. The Illinois athletic director wishes the topic was about an upcoming bowl game for Illinois. But it’s not. Thomas has seen his first major coaching hire, Tim Beckman, stumble to a 6-18 record in his first two seasons. Not what anyone associated with the program envisioned two years ago when Ron Zook was fired. Thomas sat down with football writers BOB ASMUSSEN and MATT DANIELS earlier this week to discuss Beckman’s tenure, the attendance issues at Memorial Stadium, the upcoming State Farm Center renovation and Thomas’ patience.
How would you assess the football season?
I’d assess the football season by breaking it down into pieces. Certainly, there’s the on-the-field-piece and the off-the-field piece. The on-the-field piece, for most people who pay attention to our football program, is more important than the off-the-field piece.
You look at the off-the-field piece and what our football student-athletes are doing in the classroom. You’ve got to give them high marks there. They’re really the poster team for us out in the community. They’ve done really well in those areas.
When you look at the on-the-field piece, you break that down even further. OK, how have we progressed? How have we gotten better? To use a football analogy, how have we moved the ball down the field?
How would you assess Tim Beckman’s second season?
We’re moving the needle as it relates to building the foundation for this program, which includes a number of things. It is those off-the-field things. It’s building the culture of your program that you can be proud of that your kids have a certain attitude and things are important to them, not just playing the game of football. I think that’s very, very important. But once again, they’re not mutually exclusive.
I do think that if you don’t have that side of it, the foundation of your program is probably built on sand. The question we’d like to have is we know we’re going to be in postseason play. It’s just a matter of where.
Let’s face it: Not even the best teams in this conference every year are winning the Big Ten or going to a BCS game, but you certainly want to be in the conversation. As you get to this point in the year and you feel like you’re being competitive, it’s giving your fan base something to be excited about.
Your office is in the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building. Beckman’s office is across the street at Memorial Stadium. How often do you and Beckman talk?
We talk often. We meet formally at least once a week. It’s a little bit different here than what I’m typically used to because, physically, we’re not close. I try to get over to practice when I can, and I am good about that if I’m in town, but a lot of times my schedule doesn’t allow me to physically be there when I’m out of the office. That doesn’t mean we’re not talking outside of that. We do.
When I was at Cincinnati, if I stomped my foot, the head football coach would know to come see me, and they’d poke the ceiling with a broomstick. They were right below me. The head basketball coach on the men’s side was right below them, so if I stomped twice, that meant they had to stomp to get the head basketball coach up in my office. You’d see people passing in the hallway. You were able to have those discussions informally several times a day because you were running into them, whether it was forced or not.
What was the nature of your talks with Beckman throughout the year?
We talked about what transpired the week before and what he sees the coming week. We’d talk about the pieces of the game. We’ve broken down some of those and what his thoughts are. We talk about his student-athletes and how they’re doing, both on and off the field. We talk about recruiting and how that’s going. We talk about any off-the-field issues.
Fortunately with the football program we haven’t had a lot of those issues. Some of them are things he has more control over day to day, and some of the things I need to look at as we continue to build infrastructure for that program that is going to be important, especially as we want to compete against those programs in our conference from a football standpoint that aren’t sitting still.
What was the most frustrating part of the season for you?
It’s probably when you get close. We were in some games that at the end of the day you hope we would have won. We probably had two or three of those. Whether it’s a 42-3 game against Michigan State or it’s a game that’s much closer, there’s always two or three plays that define the outcome of a game. Momentum is so important and how the momentum shifts has a lot to do with who walks off the field at the end of the day as the victor.
In a lot of ways, sure, we’re disappointed that we didn’t end up where we wanted to be and we don’t have another game to play this year. It doesn’t make me feel any better, but there’s a couple games there where a couple things go a different way, you’re sitting here talking about being bowl eligible. How far off are we really? That’s the frustrating part. By no means do I think we’ve arrived.
I’ve been doing this long enough and been around a lot of good football programs to know we still have a lot of work to do. The other difficult thing for me, and I wouldn’t say it’s frustration, is you feel for those kids, especially our seniors. They didn’t give up this year. They had a great attitude and a great work ethic.
I think that culture is very strong in that program right now. You look at Nathan (Scheelhaase) and Jonathan (Brown) and Steve Hull and Spencer Harris and Corey Lewis and you could go on and on and on, we’ve got a lot of great kids. If we continue to bring in those kind of kids, but a lot more of them, I think this football program is going to be in pretty good shape.
Is it hard to be patient with the program?
For sure. My wife, Jeni, will tell you that, probably. I always say one of my greatest strengths is I know what my weaknesses are. I am not a patient person. Now, is it because I grew up as one of 10 kids and had to wait in line for everything?
Maybe. I would be the first to tell that that is part of my DNA. I am not a patient person, so that makes it a little more difficult.
With football, I wish it was a situation where you flip the switch and we would look different. I wish there was a magic formula. If that was the case, everybody would be doing it. Certainly, and I think there’s other programs based on where they were at the time and the numbers you look at with roster sizes. With football, you’re talking 85 to 105 kids; sometimes this takes more time. That certainly isn’t something that pleases me. If I could move up the timetable, I would, and I’m sure if you polled our fan base, they’d move it up as quickly as I would.
Do the fans complain to you?
I know there’s a lot of disgruntled and background noise out there, and that’s to be expected. If our fans’ expectations were to be sitting home at this time of year, I’d be severely disappointed. I don’t care where I go in this country and what sport or who we’re competing against, there’s more orange and blue in the stands than anywhere. That’s great. They support our kids and support our programs. They’ve been tremendous. I know some of them are as impatient as I am.
I hear from a lot of people who are very positive about what we’re doing, and they realize it’s just going to take some time. I hear from a lot of those individuals as well. No doubt we’d rather be sitting here right now about where we’re going to go in postseason play and our fans have to start making travel arrangements and buying tickets. That’s where we want to get eventually.
How disheartening was it for you to see the lack of fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium this season?
It’s difficult, but I do know historically that you look at a 10- to-12-year window, there’s been a lot of ups and downs as it relates to attendance. Certainly a lot of it has been tied to the success of our programs.
Even (last) Saturday, the comment to me was, “Well, we traditionally haven’t drawn well on the last home game of the year.” It’s easy to say that’s because our students aren’t here.
Well, I think if you’re winning at a high level consistently, then those are things you’re not worried about. That’s on us. We need to get our program to a point where we’re having success, and when you have that periodic down year when you’re not having the wins that you’d like, that people are still showing up. Our program isn’t at that point right now. There’s a lot of examples of programs that have gotten to that point and have seemed to weather the storm of having a bad year here or there. That’s not where we are now.
You look at crowds at Michigan and Auburn ... they were full on Thanksgiving weekend.
Michigan is Michigan. You look at their tradition. They’re not a one-hit wonder. They’ve had crowds like that for years. Every year they’re an attendance leader in football, and there’s a few other attendance leaders in our conference, like Ohio State and Penn State. A lot of good examples like Wisconsin and Iowa.
We’ve got to get to that point where, for us, we feel pretty good about the fact that we know our fans are going to show up every Saturday, and then I don’t get the question by Loren (Tate) and Steve (Kelly) on Saturday mornings of what is the crowd going to look like today? That’s one less question that they have to ask me on Saturday morning.
Do you have any future plans for Memorial Stadium improvements?
There’s some things aesthetically that we’ll be doing, like our end zones. This weekend, when I’m sitting at home, I’ll be Googling best college football end zone designs. We purposefully — until our rebranding initiative, which comes out in April — have been spray-painting our end zones. That’s a fairly new field, and we didn’t want to sew in something that a couple years later we were going to have to pull out. Things like that.
I’d like to do some more recognition-type stuff inside the stadium, maybe tied to our All-Americans. There’s different aesthetic things like that. We’ll get together, with the appropriate staff and the right departments, to talk about the game-day experience about what we can continue to do better. That’s a big deal.
We are studying right now, with the university, the opportunity to go wireless in that stadium next fall. That doesn’t mean as I sit here today that’s going to happen, but there’s a real serious discussion in that. That’s a big deal today to folks. We need to pay attention to that, and I know other Big Ten schools, for football purposes, are looking at that as well.
A longer-term goal, but hopefully we’re still looking at a fairly short window, is we’re doing two studies this year. One is a master plan tied to our Olympic sports, but we’re also going to get it here on the streets pretty soon is a study of our football stadium about what we still need to do at Memorial Stadium. Certainly, we’ve got the east side (to focus on), but those are more fan amenities and things we need to do for folks who sit on the east side of the stadium. We need to look at the south end, and I’d eventually like to pull that in and put a support facility there.
It’s not about adding more seats. We’ve talked about attendance. I don’t think we need to add more seats right now. One of the things we need to do, as it relates to football on a day-to-day basis, is infrastructure. Tim and I talk about this. Do they have what they need from a strength and conditioning standpoint, from sports medicine, from team meeting rooms to positional meeting rooms to a dining facility? What are the things we need for them, but also for the other 18 programs? We’re looking at that this year. I can’t give you a timeline on when it will be complete, but hopefully it will get out on the streets as soon as possible.
Where are you with the Matt Sinclair situation?
Matt’s still on administrative leave, and we’re going through an internal process related to that. We’ll know more about that in the near future.
That had to be disappointing for you and Tim because the off-the-field issues haven’t really materialized recently.
It is. It’s certainly not consistent with the expectations we have for our coaches and staffs and student-athletes. I think it’s on all of us who are working over here or are student-athletes to be first-rate ambassadors for this great institution.
Do you have in your head a certain amount of games Beckman needs to win next year to keep his job?
I don’t ever get in the numbers game, but as I said earlier, a couple plays here or there and you might be looking at playing in a bowl game this year. Certainly the goal would be and the hope would be that we’re playing in a bowl game next year. But, once again, you have 12 games to figure that out. I don’t put a number on that.
I had said in a very general way is you’ve got to feel like you’re seeing growth in all areas. We moved the needle in a lot of areas this year, but I think there’s some areas where we can do better. There’s some we just need to move down the pipeline a little quicker than others if we want to consistently win football games here at the University of Illinois.
Do you think a five-year contract is a good length for a football coach?
I think that’s consistent with a lot of coaching contracts, but not just in football. You’ll see it more probably consistently in football than basketball. It’s probably not as consistently as much with your Olympic sport coaches, although there are some that have those.
You’ll see situations, and I’m sure they’re out there, where coaches have been at places for a long time, and they’re basically getting something that might almost amount to a lifetime contract, whether it’s on paper or not. That’s a pretty consistent length of contract that schools are using.
Texas A&M recently gave Kevin Sumlin a new six-year contract. Do you talk with other athletic directors about what’s a good number of years to give a coach?
I’m sure coaches like when those things happen because everyone tries to base things on market value. That raises the bar for everybody else. We have examples of that in our own conference. I’m certainly not begrudging those coaches because it’s usually happening when people have great success.
People even talk about Coach (Nick) Saban. You look at Coach Saban, but you look at the revenue line and what’s happened since he’s been there, the percentages are certainly working in his favor that he’s done enough to warrant that kind of contract. How do you put a price on the exposure you’re getting? It’s difficult to do. We do talk about that, but sometimes it’s timing.
There’s no doubt that Coach Sumlin has been a hot property for a long time. It sounds like maybe he was again, and they said, “We’re going to be proactive and take the necessary steps to make sure they’ve locked him up for some time.”
You said this when you hired Beckman: Big Ten wins are important. How hard was it to watch him go 1-15 in his first two Big Ten seasons?
It wasn’t easy. That’s not how you want to script it. Not at all. The wins and losses certainly aren’t indicative of the effort these coaches and student-athletes are putting in. If that were the case, and based on just that alone, we’d have a pretty successful football season with what’s happening between the lines.
There are other examples of coaches who are Hall of Fame-type coaches who got out of the boxes pretty slow and had great careers at different places.
Certainly now is not where we would have wanted to be, but we can’t sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to continue to come to work every day with the focus of developing our program in all areas that allow us to be successful.
How’s the renovation at State Farm Center coming along?
It’s great. We’ve probably raised about $32 million in addition to the State Farm Center naming deal. The student referendum passed, which gives us about another $2.1 million a year. We have a lot of things still to sell. We’re out there doing it every day. Because we’re doing three stages, we have different benchmarks we’re trying to hit, but the official opening is November 2016. The lower bowl gets gutted in March 2015 after our last basketball game. We have to do all of that between the end of the basketball season in March 2015 and the start of the next basketball season in November 2015.
We’re probably going to have to work three eight-hour shifts each day. I’ll probably be screwing in light bulbs. I anticipate it. People ask me the question all the time of “Is it going to be done on time?” I say, “Well, have you ever built a house? Can you imagine the changeovers and the things you have to do when you’re building a $165,000 house? Just imagine what it’s like doing a $165 million project?” That phase of it is going to be extremely, extremely tight.
I’ve been to some of the other Big Ten venues that have been recently renovated, and they’re not even close or in the same ballpark (as State Farm Center), so we’re pretty excited. This month we start doing utility work over there and the southeast parking lot gets closed for the rest of the project for staging purposes. Some of the things we’ll be looking at before next year are the two entrances. For example, if you were to look at the east and west sides, there’s a semi-circle on both sides. These entrances are going to go all the way out to (a nearby) drive, and they’re enclosed. On the west side, for example, you’re going to have a Hall of Fame and a lot of stuff in there.
Part of this phase is working on those entrances on both ends. That circle drive that’s going to be on the east side doesn’t exist right now. With recruiting right now, kids ask about it, both men and women. Even when I meet with these kids, they ask me questions about it. Of course, I come in with my tool belt on so they think we’re actually getting something done.
When is the Nike rebranding initiative set to be unveiled?
In April. Don’t hold me to this, but right around the spring (football) game. New uniforms for everybody, basically. What normally happens with your uniforms is we have a schedule of all our teams laid out. There’s a cycle they go through. For us, there’s already teams that are in the pipeline to be getting new uniforms next year anyway, so that would be a natural. There’s some that maybe they aren’t (in line), but maybe they will be. We’re kind of making those decisions right now.
When you brand it, you’d like it all to have the same look from Day 1. I can tell you that football and the two basketball (teams), everything will be new. That decision has been made.