Mike Thomas was an athlete who loved sports. Moving into administration, he won national awards at Akron and Cincinnati for naming winning coaches and directing programs.
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Along the way, almost without realizing it, he became a fundraiser ... first and everything else second. Around the clock.
Like college presidents, that’s what athletic directors do.
As an Illini fan, you’ll grumble or praise him based on how the UI football and basketball teams produce. But, in reality, what transpires in the games is out of his hands. Back then, he took a couple of weeks to name head coaches and returned to his real job: seeking revenue.
Which brings us to the I-Fund, the annual revenue generated to handle scholarships for 520 student-athletes. Here are the numbers:
In 20 years, Thomas points out tuition has tripled from $10,000 to more than $30,000 for in-state athletes, and to more than $40,000 for out-of-staters (out-of-staters exceed 50 in football alone).
The annual fund, geared to cover scholarships, has 7,200 contributors giving $7.5 million, which is well below the $10.8 million required for tuition in 2014. That $7.5 million, according to an I-Fund Insider released last November, shows Illinois in the lower third of the Big Ten and, if these numbers are current and accurate, 10th in the Big 12, ninth in the Pac-12 and 14th in the SEC.
As extreme examples, Texas checks in at $36.5 million, and seven SEC schools are over $20 million. Illinois is wwaaayyy behind.
“We want to cover our scholarships from our I-Fund,” Thomas said.
With that as a goal, he has announced an initiative to double the donor base to 15,000 and the annual I-Fund revenue to $15 million by 2020.
“Levels haven’t changed for 20 years, so we are adding levels at the top and bottom,” Thomas said. “The old top level was our Loyalty Circle, which was $10,000 and is now at the bottom of the Big Ten. We have added giving levels of $15,000, $30,000 and $50,000, and also a Hall of Fame for individuals whose lifetime giving to the DIA is over $500,000.
“The lowest contribution had been $100. We have added a $50 level called Illini Nation, with the intent of growing the donor base.
“Each level has benefits. It takes into account total lifetime giving and the years of consecutive service for men’s football and basketball.”
Thomas noted that DIA donor numbers started going down in 2008-09, and that trend continued until it was stabilized in 2011-12.
Here’s the tough part. Donors already have been hit from all sides, beginning with the Ron Guenther construction era that included renovation of Memorial Stadium’s west side, and are now asked to support the $165 million State Farm Center (30-year cost including interest of more than $300 million). At the same time, Thomas is engaged in two studies on an Olympic Center (the plan is due in late summer) and the stadium’s east side, and he soon will prioritize them.
Piling up the money
For Thomas, the road map is clear: Raise money. Piles of the green stuff.
Nine other staffers, including Rick Darnell as head of a three-man staff in Chicago, are engaged in seeking donors.
“We raised approximately $95 million in cash and pledges for the State Farm Center last year,” Thomas said, “and we raised about $79 million in new commitments and pledges. Our endowments at this time stand at $50 million (at 4 percent, that’s $2 million in income).”
Here’s the catch. There is no end game, no point when Thomas can hoist his feet on his desk and relax. The race for dollars will never end, and a lot of competitors are far ahead and racing. Ohio State is literally rolling in greenbacks. Kansas is planning basketball facility improvements that boggle the mind.
Just this week, in visiting his Bielfeldt office, work was underway to construct a second floor over the northwest corner of the building.
“We need the room,” Thomas said. “We’re stacked on top of each other.”
What might be considered a major project is minor in the big picture.
MORE COMING: When you’ve digested all these numbers — 520, 7,200, $10,800, $95M, $79M, etc. — more is coming on how future State Farm Center seating fits into the chase for dollars. Premium or not, it’s going to be expensive. And can they fill those seats in 2015-16 with no games in November?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.