USA Today // Bradley Leeb

Werner: Is Mike Thomas next?

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas on thin ice as his program reels from Tim Beckman's firing, years of issues

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas dismissed football coach Tim Beckman on Friday for a culture that -- according to Thomas -- efforted "to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries."

Yet, Thomas then had the gall to praise his athletic department's culture.

“I think that the culture within our Division of Intercollegiate Athletics is tremendous," Thomas said. "I believe in our coaches, our staff and our student-athletes. I think they come to work every day and participate every day wearing integrity on their sleeve. It’s all about doing things the right way.”

There are many, many great people in the Illinois athletic department who work to make the student-athlete's experience as enjoyable as possible. Most of the student-athletes represent the University of Illinois with pride and integrity.

But that doesn't change the fact that the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics -- like its mother, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign -- has some serious issues right now. And it starts at the top.

Thomas may want to stand for the right things. But two of his programs -- led by his first two hires at Illinois -- were accused of serious abuse allegations, and two coaches are gone.

One was paid to leave and remain silent (Illini women's basketball assistant Mike Divilbiss), though the Illini women's basketball program was cleared of wrongdoing by an independent investigation into abuse and racism allegations. The other (Beckman) likely will sue the athletic department, which said it will not pay the $743,000 buyout left on his deal because it feels the preliminary findings of an independent investigation provided cause to do so.

An athletic director cannot be expected to know absolutely everything in his department, especially one with 525 student-athletes, 300 staffers and 21 sports -- which is may be difficult to legally find Thomas at fault for Beckman's supposed misconduct. But Thomas sets the tone for the entire athletic department: from compliance to marketing to academics to equipment to sports medicine to business.

Even if Thomas doesn't perform every function, the athletic director ultimately is responsible and accountable for what happens in his athletic department because he is supposed to hold those in his department responsible and accountable. That's leadership.

Thomas said he did what he had to do on Friday, according to information he knows but to which the public is not yet privy (the football investigation is expected to be completed by Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet during the season). If the findings did show that Beckman performed medical misconduct, it was the right move, the move that makes the Illini football players safer.

But the move certainly didn't clear Thomas, whose four years at Illinois have brought too few wins in the revenue sports and too many off-the-field black eyes (there also is an investigation into allegations of medical misconduct against the Illini women's soccer team).

Thomas touts reforms, like adding a coaches' code of conduct. But several of his student-athletes -- as shown by the women's basketball and football investigations -- felt there wasn't an avenue in which they could safely voice their concerns and a system in which those concerns would be investigated.

“It’s a large operation,” Thomas said. “You have several layers. Everyone needs to be held accountable. This situation … is an opportunity. Whether we look at the avenues of reporting. Why did we not know these things? Why weren’t they shared with people? We are doing those things with our coaches’ code of conduct, with opening up reporting lines to make sure our student-athletes and our coaches are educated and trained to know how that works. Bringing in an external consultant, Dan Beebe, to also trian our student-athletes and make sure they know what’s appropriate, but also when there are issues, that we’re addressing them in real time.”

Thomas is the opposite of his predecessor, Ron Guenther.

Thomas had no ties to Illinois. Guenther was the MVP of the 1966 Illini football team.

Guenther was accused by some of treating the University of Illinois athletic department more like the "University of East Central Illinois." Thomas thinks bigger, expanding marketing strategies across the state and pushing harder in Chicago and St. Louis.

Guenther rarely spoke the media, keeping his public profile low (to the annoyance of many fans). Thomas wants to be known as the accessible A.D. He rarely turns down a media request and has a weekly radio show on a local station, often taking calls from fans.

Guenther had a way of striking relationships with important people. Thomas has raised a lot of money for the State Farm Center but has been accused of being too distant and too business-like.

Thomas will see how many supporters he has now. UI president Timothy Killeen just took over in the past few months and probably would like to swat away the annoying fly that has been the athletic department distractions as he focuses on bigger issues at his three campuses, like hiring a new chancellor.

That new chancellor will have no allegiance to Thomas, who doesn't appear to have much going for him on paper (let's see: basketball team missing two straight NCAA Tournament, football 4-20 in the Big Ten the last three seasons and investigations galore!).

And would that chancellor really want to allow Thomas -- whose first Illini hire went 4-20 in the Big Ten and was fired for alleged abuse; whose second hire (Bollant) survived abuse and racism allegations but has overseen massive roster turnover and a 17-38 Big Ten record; and whose third hire (Groce) also has a subpar Big Ten record (24-30) -- to make another hire that could determine whether the program's highest-revenue program succeeds or fails?

Thomas said it on Friday: "Everyone needs to be held accountable."

Many think that should start with the guy at the top.


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