Plenty On Plate For Illini AD Mike Thomas

The life of a college athletic administrator is difficult at best. That is especially true for an athletic director responsible for multiple sports at a major university. New AD Mike Thomas has burned the midnight oil frequently to get a handle on everything. Fortunately, athletic success is making his job a little easier. He updates recent events in this report.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas answered questions on a variety of subjects on WDWS radio Saturday. He has faced many issues in a short amount of time since assuming his duties, and sleep has been a secondary concern.

"I haven't taken any vacation days, but I don't think I've accrued any."

At least, Illini fall programs enjoyed success.

"Quite a bit has happened, most of it good. We've had a great fall with volleyball, and I expect things to happen there where we're a national player. Women's soccer winning a Big 10 championship; Janet Rayfield's kids are doing great things.

"In football, it was a good transition, the student-athletes going to San Francisco and winning the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. All in all, things are good. There's a bright future for the Fighting Illini."

Thomas was forced to fire head football coach Ron Zook and replace him with Tim Beckman. But the win in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is a good stepping-stone for the new regime.

"I think it's huge. You want to get to bowl games, and you want to set a pattern where you are going to bowl games every year. We'd like to be one of those programs, across the ticker on ESPN, that are going to their 15th straight bowl game.

"That being said, once you get to the bowl games, you still want to win. I think the fact that we've won two in a row really established a strong foundation, one we can work off of."

The transition was not completely smooth. Some of Zook's assistant coaches misunderstood their contracts and complained openly about it. Without going into specific detail, it is clear Thomas is secure in his position on the matter. He hopes lessons learned can prevent future contract disputes.

"I've been doing this for 26 years, and I had three coaches at Cincinnati, two of them I hired. I've never had a situation where it was unclear with our outgoing coaches. In my mind, what transpired recently wasn't unclear. I know what's on paper, and I know what the previous administration shared with me.

"So moving forward, with the communications you have with them and the contracts you put in front of them on what exactly is taking place, whether you have a situation with outgoing coaches or where you are renegotiating contracts, that you all know where the starting and ending point is."

Thomas was asked the degree to which he is involved in assisting Beckman with the hiring of his assistant coaching staff.

"With the incoming assistant coaches, the way I've always handled salaries is that, I give the head coach a pool to work with. He puts that together like fitting a puzzle together. He'll ask, 'Is this what you're thinking? Are you okay with this?'

"Generally I'm okay unless you see something that is way out of whack. I give them the latitude, for the most part, the coaches they want.

"My concern is whether the coaches have any issues more off the field than on the field. Those are things I'd be really looking for. If you hire a coach, you hope they have the ability and experiences to hire a good staff they need to be successful."

Jon Tenuta was announced as the new defensive coordinator, but he changed his mind and stayed at North Carolina State. Thomas explains Tenuta's hiring had been in the works for awhile before his change of heart.

"I think it's unfortunate. He had committed to Coach Beckman a couple weeks back. And then all of a sudden, overnight he decides not to come. This was in the works for quite awhile.

"It happens once in awhile. Coach Tenuta's reason for staying there is related to family. I'm sure Tim will bring in a qualified defensive coordinator to the University of Illinois and hopefully do the kind of things that we've been used to the last years."

Football scheduling can be tricky. Thomas seeks a way of enhancing the experience for everyone while still providing a reasonable opportunity for success.

"You have to have a schedule that allows you to (attend and win bowl games). It's got to be competitive, it's got to be balanced, it's got to be attractive to your fans. You want to win Big 10 Championships. If you're not playing in a BCS game, you certainly want the opportunity to play in a bowl game.

"When I talked about a balanced schedule, you want an attractive schedule, but you have to be realistic. We are a Big 10 program; we are a physical team. But you've got to put yourself in position where you can win at a high level but win enough games to qualify for a bowl. And do that consistently."

The Big 10 has been contemplating going to a 9 game conference schedule by 2017. That may no longer be the case now that a competition agreement has been reached with the Pac-12.

"My understanding is that would replace a ninth conference game, for us. I think the Pac-12 is going to keep the status quo and our game on top of it."

Will this agreement affect nonrevenue sports also?

"That's correct. That hasn't been crystallized; we don't know what that's gonna look like. It could be things like having a volleyball challenge between Pac-12 and Big 10 teams. It could be home-and-homes. It could be different nonconference preseason events.

"There's a lot of expansion going on right now, and most of it doesn't make sense. How can we strengthen our Big 10 credentials, knowing we'd really for the most part like to stay put? Do something with schools that look a lot alike. We have a great tradition with the Pac-12. To do that and keep a membership of 12 schools, we're extending our brand to the West coast.

"We all know all this expansion stuff is about TV and money. I think we've influenced our inventory there and made us look a lot stronger in the long run."

Thomas has hired Jason Lener for a top administrative position within the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. He explains Lener's job description.

"The position that Jason Lener came into is the same role he had with the athletic director at Miami of Ohio. He was there for six years and had a great background. Prior to that he was at Pitt for ten years.

"That was a vacant slot. Terry Cole retired when Ron Guenther retired basically. He will come in to assume that role. He will have a great deal of day-to-day responsibility in the management of the department. He will also be responsible for the football and men's basketball programs."

Thomas also provided an update on renovation plans for the Assembly Hall.

"The goal would be, at some point this spring we would actually have something tangible that we could work with that we could go out and sell so we can put a funding model in place and begin renovation of Assembly Hall. (Naming rights) would be a big part of it."


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