New Illini AD Mike Thomas Meets Media

The new Fighting Illini Athletic Director has been on a whirlwind tour of his new job. Mike Thomas is no doubt burning the midnight oil trying to meet all his coaches, support people, players and alumni while grasping all the complexities of his new job. Despite that, he took time Tuesday to meet with the media and answer questions about his role.

New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas visited with media today in the Varsity Room. The following is most of his question and answer session.

Q: What did you think about the crowd at your first game?

A: Obviously, you'd like to be playing in front of a full house. You can look at all the marketing pieces that would hopefully enhance that kind of crowd, but then it really comes down to winning and sustaining success within a foundation that, whatever your level of success, people are gonna attend games in Memorial Stadium. It's a foundation we need to continue to build.

We had only 35,000 capacity at Cincinnati. My first year, it was half full. Last year, we were at 97% capacity. That's the same thing we want to do here.

Q: Can you do some marketing to help get it rolling?

A: We did a lot with that, and coaches were pretty engaged. I think it's important for the coaches to get out in the community, regardless what the community is like. There it's a pro city, so you need to be really active. You need to work it, but winning games makes everybody's job easier.

Q: Will you be heavily involved in football scheduling?

A: I'll be very involved in that. I will be the key person; I have been at other schools. It will be in conjunction with the football coach. I would want to solicit their input before final decisions are made on football schedules.

Q: What is a good number of home and away games?

A: Coming from a place where we were 6 and 6 and moving closer to a 7 and 5, whether it's 8 and 4, 7 and 5...I'm trying to see whether a Chicago piece makes sense. I'm not sure every year will look the same.

I'm sitting down with some of the football folks this week to see what they've done philosophically scheduling-wise at this point, and how far out they're scheduled. This is the week for me to get educated on the football schedule.

Q: What about that Chicago piece?

A: I think in both football and basketball, it's important if you're gonna have a presence up there. You need to figure out a way to get in front of those people. You certainly don't want to do it to dilute the experience of the people in Champaign, the core people who really support our programs.

I think it's definitely something we need to look at. I think minimally to have six home games, and whether a seventh one was here or the seventh one was up in Chicago, that that would make a lot of sense.

Traditionally, you don't see 8 a lot. You might see it at some of the schools that have the big stadiums because to leave home, you're leaving a lot of money on the table. I'll have a better feel for that in the next couple of weeks.

Q: Are you interested in an annual event in Chicago?

A: Annually, I don't know. It also has to be the right opponent. It has to make sense geographically as well. You can think of some of who those players might be, but they might not line up. It takes two to make that work.

Q: How does a 9 game Big Ten schedule affect overall scheduling?

A: I think that comes into play in 2017. I know that's something Big 10 ADs are talking about. We're not scheduled too heavy that far out, but with that kind of schedule, there's going to be an imbalance. You need to figure out, when you're playing more Big 10 games away, that you're compensating for it on the home team side.

Q: Are we headed for four super conferences?

A: I'm glad I'm in the Big 10. A year ago, I was having great heartburn because I was in the Big East. I was thinking that conference was going to be a target of this conference or maybe others. I think that's a possibility.

I thought the Big 12 would be the trigger point to get this conversation started again, and in fact that's what happened. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if that's the direction this is headed.

Q: How do you envision schools trying to go to their own TV networks?

A: I don't think there are very many schools that can pull that off. I think it's a short list. Texas is one of them. Some feel Texas can probably be independent and survive. But it doesn't surprise me, as soon as that came out, that they would establish their own television network, that it would cause real issues with others in that conference.

Q: Where does the renovation of the Assembly Hall stand?

A: That is a priority. I'm gonna have my first Assembly Hall meeting this week. That in fact has to happen. President Hogan and Chancellor Wise are certainly advocates and supportive of making that happen. It was part of my discussion coming here.

Q: Has anything in your first two weeks here surprised you?

A: I didn't know that the people here were this nice. The people here are great. Nothing so far has surprised me. That isn't to say that's still coming down the pike. I really have been genuinely pleased with how welcoming people have been. Maybe that's because we've only lost a total of one soccer game since I've been here. It makes the transition that much easier.

Q: How has the Athletic Director job changed over the last several years?

A: I think it's changed in a lot of ways. When I first got into it, it was a mom-pop operation, at least at some of the schools where I was employed. Even from a technology standpoint, the dollars have gone up exponentially. At a number of schools, any of their issues really starts with their finances.

Because we're in a competitive world and there's an arms race, you're talking about coaches salaries or facilities, you're always trying to grow your revenues and do those type of things. You want to be able to keep good coaches. You want to be able to build buildings. You want to be able to market your program to make sure your student-athletes are having a great experience. So the dollars have changed a lot.

Here at Illinois, since the Big Ten Network has been in place, there's been a boost in their budget. So I think that's part of it.

The compliance issues have always been there. The NCAA seems at a point where they're gonna pay more attention to the serious offenders and serious offenses that are going on and less so to some of those things that they seem to spend time with that really are much on a smaller scale. Situations where probably no one's getting a great advantage. So I think that's changed, and I think that will continue to evolve.

Now the NCAA is into this financial reform piece, but a few years ago they were into educational reform, which I think is a good thing. I think kids should be in any institution to go to school and get a degree. I think Illinois is not only one of the better schools in this conference but nationally as far as kids doing what they need to do in the classroom and getting degrees. So there's change there, and I think that will only continue to get better in the future.

Q: How has your feedback been in Chicago about establishing more of a brand there?

A: I've heard more about that in Champaign than probably from Chicago people. Before the game Saturday, probably the thing I heard most from our fans was the Chicago discussion. A good number of these people live up in that area. That's something that we need to pay attention to as an institution.

There are things we can do up there, and some of them are measurable. Whether it's related to fund-raising or ticket sales or merchandise sales; admissions, not just of student-athletes but students; and recruiting of students and student-athletes.

I think there needs to be a real presence up there. But to me, that would be significant if it was an institutional decision, and we had a plan where we joined with other people on campus to go up there and make a difference.

A lot's been made out of my comment of being "King of Chicago." So you know I had a discussion today with Jeannie (Ponsetto) from DePaul, their AD. We were having a good time. She says she wants to be the queen of Chicago. Of course, I've known Jeannie from the Big East.

I think we have great opportunities up there. We have a fan base and alumni base up there that certainly gravitates toward us doing more and having a bigger brand up there. That's really a big step in us becoming more of a national brand.

Q: Are there things you can do immediately, or are most of these ideas long-term?

A: I would like to flip a switch and say it will be different tomorrow, but a lot of what you do, even as you look at your budget cycles and where you've allocated resources, those decisions have been made for FY 12 (Fiscal Year 2012). That doesn't mean we can't shift gears. But that planning has to start now. Discussions with folks on our campus on planning needs to happen now.

How quickly we can implement some of those things, based on whether we're going to cherry-pick things or have a comprehensive plan, might take a little bit longer.

Q: How important is St. Louis in your planning?

A: I think it's important. Where it fits exactly, I probably couldn't tell you specifically as I sit here today. In my 30 minute meeting down there, the people in St. Louis are smaller in number than the people in Chicago, but they're still very passionate. The Fighting Illini have a lot of good folks down there that support the program. St. Louis is very important to us, and it's an area we need to pay attention to.

Q: Are you bringing anybody from Cincinnati with you?

A: Not at this time. I have no plans at this time to bring anybody from Cincinnati.


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