Mike Thomas Living Charmed Life At UI

New Fighting Illini athletic director Mike Thomas has demonstrated a strong public persona as he settles into his new job. He seems to be at multiple locations simultaneously, cheering for his athletic teams and learning more about the complexities of his work. He provided an update Saturday on several subjects of interest to Illini fans.

New Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas appears to be living a charmed life. On the job a month, he has a football team ranked in the Top 25 in the country and a women's volleyball team ranked #1. The men's gymnastics team is #2 in the preseason, and the women's soccer team is performing well. Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday, Thomas joked about his role in those successes.

"I was speaking to a group the other day on my one month anniversary. I said having a Top 25 football program and the #1 volleyball program was all part of my 30-day plan."

Of course, he is quick to praise those truly responsible for those successes.

"I really can't take credit. All this was in the pipeline with the people before me and the athletes and coaches. They've done a wonderful job.

"That's why coming to the University of Illinois has been a treat. Not just for the opportunities with football and basketball, that's what people want to talk most about. But I find in Champaign, people like to talk about a lot of other stuff. I think it's all about being a broad-based program, and we're here to win championships."

Thomas is also not responsible for the "Stripe The Stadium" promotion slated for the Ohio State home game October 15th. That is an idea hatched to increase fan interest in the football team and engage those fans in attendance. It will no doubt help, but Thomas knows filling Memorial Stadium takes more than promotions.

"I think winning will do it, but I think we need to win consistently. To sustain that, you've got to get that base of people who assume as part of their everyday thinking that you're gonna have a winning football team and want to be part of it.

"Last week at Huff Hall, we had a great (volleyball) event, and we had to tell 300-400 people they couldn't come in. It was a standing-room-only event. It was spectacular. When you win consistently, people come. That's what needs to happen.

"I think football is different than a lot of sports. It is about winning. It is different than basketball in that it is an all-day event. People usually spend their day there, whereas with basketball, you go to the game, watch the game and then get in your car and go home. How you program before and after the game is important, but primary is winning."

Thomas has too many things on his plate to take a hands-on approach to marketing right now. That will come in time.

"As for marketing, I will be more informed, more and more engaged as things play out in the future. Right now, I'm focusing on a lot of things. But in the future, that will be a real focus for us."

He inherited the Assembly Hall renovation project from his successor Ron Guenther. Thomas plans to proceed with it.

"We're moving forward with that project. We are at a point where we are working with the architects and the successful bidder on that project. Hopefully we'll get that to the Board sooner than later for approval. Then we can move forward on the design concept, which gives us the opportunity to go out and raise the money to get the project done."

A recent compliance glitch at Cincinnati, Thomas's former school, required explanation.

"On the women's basketball side, it was a situation where we had an assistant coach in a very isolated way making some impermissible phone calls. We discovered that when we purchased software to detect that. We'd done it manually before.

"We identified it, and within a few hours the coach was in our office and was dismissed immediately. We self-reported it and did all the right work, investigated it and handed out penalties. The (NCAA) Committee On Infractions considered it a major violation, which was my first in 26 years of college athletics.

"On the football side, there were some phone calls that were considered secondary infractions. Everybody in the country has secondary infractions. Those and the women's basketball issue were packaged together. The NCAA is looking into these kinds of calls, and a year from now, those might not even be considered infractions.

"The Big East comes in and audits the compliance programs once every four years. Just last fall, they gave us a clean bill of health and said we were a model program, a program they considered one of the top Big East programs. I think it's important to have a plan in place, and education is #1. It's not so much the crime but what you do when you find out about the crime."

What does he think of the UI's compliance program?

"As best I can tell, it's very solid. The two gentlemen who are most responsible for compliance at the University of Illinois, Vince Ille and Ryan Squire, both came from Cincinnati. I didn't know either of them, but I think they're solid, and their record speaks for itself.

"My early assessment of the compliance program is very strong. People have a willingness to do things the right way and have integrity as part of their every day DNA.

"I think people realize the importance of running a clean athletic program. But because we all make mistakes, what do we do when we find out? We need to deal with it immediately. We need to take the right action and get the right people involved. And make sure that is part of our continued education so we can do better in the future."

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