Tate: Mind on Illini money

Tate: Mind on Illini money

For decades, the nation’s five biggest conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC — have spent lavishly on facilities and coaches, outspending smaller rivals by many millions.

Illinois is typical. The UI had no sooner completed a $115 million stadium renovation than it initiated $169.5 million in State Farm Center improvements. And $1.3 million of the $84 million DIA budget will be distributed this year to a coach who hasn’t even coached here in the last two seasons, Bruce Weber.

It’s Monopoly money. With broadcast dollars multiplying, outrageous salaries have become routine. But when these five conferences sought a $2,000 stipend for athletes in 2011, the NCAA’s small schools voted down the resolution.

This event, coupled with money-related challenges building from the athletes themselves, led to Thursday’s governance change. With a few exceptions, such as scholarship limits and transfer policies, the five conferences will henceforth be able to control their own destinies without small-school interference.

The resources are available and will grow dramatically in the coming years, so the time has come to “do right by the student-athlete ... within limits.”

Mike Thomas, beginning his fourth school year as UI athletic director, discussed the stunning change and how Illinois will handle it. 

Q: You have announced a budget outlay in 2014-15 of $3 million for additional meals, extended cost of attendance (for returning athletes) and enhanced medical care.
Thomas: We have set aside $1 million just for meals as soon as school starts. In addition to our student-athlete meals plan, the DIA will serve (at Memorial Stadium) 15 meals each week during the school year: breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Sunday through Thursday and no meals on Saturday.

Our regular meals plan will remain in place when we don’t serve.
This won’t be the same for all conferences and institutions. It may look different a year from now as we go through the process. This is uncharted territory.

Q: If I am on partial scholarship in a non-revenue sport and had not previously been receiving free meals, am I included?
Thomas: A lot of people are benefiting who may not have had that opportunity in the past. All of our walk-on athletes are included.

Q: What is the next step?
Thomas: We have until Oct. 1 to discuss those issues that we want to bring up for the NCAA convention in January. We may not be ready to make a recommendation about extended health care until later. It could be in the pipeline but not go into effect until 2015-16.

Q: What about the so-called stipend (projected at $3,000), which would be part of the “cost of education” piece?
Thomas: That will probably be something that would also fall into the $750,000 to $1 million range.

Q: How engaged will you be in making recommendations?
Thomas: As athletic directors, we’ll have those discussions at the Big Ten offices and provide our input to the other four conferences. Not all five will feel the same way about the same things.

Q: There have been comments, particularly by Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, that the enforcement process is broken. Your comment:
Thomas: At this point, there’s not a lot in the enforcement pipeline, which may lead people to believe that something needs to be fixed. Jim Delany has talked about outsourcing to an enforcement agency outside the NCAA, that this might be a more efficient way.

The commissioner also mentioned that enforcement might be handled at the conference level. But at this point there has been little discussion on that matter.

Q: You sold 14,000 tickets for seven games in a flash $9.99 sale last week. Might you repeat that?
Thomas: That was dedicated to the seats that you generally see empty. It was a positive response. I think you might see something in the future, but it may not be exactly the same.

Q: Are you selling enough suites in the stadium to meet payments for the 30-year bonds for that 2006-08 renovation?
Thomas: You always protect yourself and try to be conservative in any funding model. For example, whether it is basketball suites, luxury or clubside seats, the State Farm Center is not based on selling 100 percent. We know the competitiveness of your programs affects sales.

As it relates to the stadium, we’re about where we’ve always been. We’ve had three or four empty suites in the last few years, and we sell those on a single-game basis.

Q: How close are you to renovating the stadium horseshoe?
Thomas: We would need to raise money because there is not a demand for premium seating in the south end. We are pretty much sold out in the Colonnades and have a little room to grow in the 77 Club. The suites aren’t quite where we want them to be, but we’re only off by a few.

Q: It sounds like you’re facing another major fund-raising drive for a proposed dining facility directly south of a renovated horseshoe.
Thomas: The initial study will be complete by late September. In all my discussions with the architect, a dining facility has been included in that project. I was told the previous estimate was $50 million for the horseshoe and $15 million for improvements on the east side. In today’s dollars, it would be a lot more.
When I’m out there raising money for the State Farm Center, a lot of people disclose that they’re “not a basketball person, so when you’re ready for a football project, come see me.”

Q: Is all going according to plan at the State Farm Center?
Thomas: Whether you’re building a house or a $170 million project, there may be hiccups, but there’s nothing that would impact where we need to be for the start of this basketball season.

Q: It is widely believed that the Big Ten’s new geographical alignment is overloaded in the East even though, since 1994, the West has sent 10 teams to the Rose Bowl (including Illinois) and the East has sent nine.
Thomas: I know certain schools have been seen as traditionally in the championship race, but you shouldn’t base your divisions on the competitiveness of the programs, because that can be cyclical.

Q: How engaged are you in the whirlwind recruiting now taking place in football, basketball and other sports?
Thomas: I am involved as much or little as the coaches desire. I am part of football recruiting weekends beginning with breakfasts with players and parents. My football Saturdays could involve numerous sports. I meet recruits at different places. It would be rare that I didn’t meet basketball players, men and women.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.