Werner: Uncertainty abounds at Illinois with uncertain leadership

With Mike Thomas out and another interim in place, Illinois provided few answers about the future of the DIA, football program

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk’s line summed up an uncertain day for the Illinois athletic department -- and university as a whole.

“I’ve not been an interim before, so I’m not quite sure what that means,” Kowalczyk said. “But I appreciate what the chancellor said in regards to that. We’re not going to just sit on our hands. We got stuff we got to do. We got things we need to accomplish.”

Kowalczyk was thrust into the interim role following Monday morning’s official dismissal of UI athletic director Mike Thomas. Just as Kowalczyk’s immediate superior, interim chancellor Barbara Wilson, was thrust into her role following former chancellor Phyllis Wise’s surprising resignation in August. Just as Wilson’s No. 2, interim provost Edward Feser, was thrust into the role following provost Ilesanmi Adesida’s resignation in August . Just as interim football coach Bill Cubit was thrust into his role following head football coach Tim Beckman’s dismissal in August.

Wilson, Kowalczyk and Cubit all answered questions -- for which none seemed to be in the position to supply answers. Each is in an unenviable, uncertain position.

Three months ago, Wilson was the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. On Monday, she had to answer questions about separate-yet-connected searches for a new athletic director and a new football coach.

On Tuesday, Kowalczyk was a rarelly-seen UI associate athletic director. On Wednesday, he learned he would take over as athletic director -- a role he had at Southern Illinois from 2000-06 and at Colorado State from 2006-11. On Monday, he was answering questions about a football hire-- one he might not even make.

Meanwhile, Cubit was the face of stability, as he's been since the former UI offensive coordinator assumed the head coaching role under unprecedented circumstances (Beckman’s firing a week before the season among abuse allegations, supported by the release of independent investigation results on Monday).

Cubit -- who should be given an badge of honor for keeping the Illini (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) focused and competitive despite so many “distractions,” as Wilson called the unrest -- was the one leader who seemed to have control over the immediate future. He said he looked at the report for a few minutes on Monday morning, called Thomas to thank him for the opportunity and then moved back to preparation for Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0).

But Monday’s press conferences gave the appearance of a vacuum of leadership above him.

Wilson said she consulted with “many people” about Thomas’ dismissal -- he will be paid a $2.5 million buyout because he displayed “no misconduct” -- but that “in the end, I made the decision.” Yet, she admits that she is “learning quickly about how athletics works.”

Both Wilson and Kowalczyk said they have made no decisions on the future of the football program and won’t until the end of the season. Neither displayed urgency -- Wilson on the athletic director search nor Kowalczyk on the football coaching search.

“I don’t know what you can get accomplished right now," Kowalczyk said. "I’ve been through this drill before. You can get a football coach at the end of the season, if in fact that’s the steps we choose to take. I don’t think there’s an issue at all right there with the timing of it. Generally speaking, you meet with the coach when the season’s over and you make that determination.”

But this isn’t your average, or general, situation.

Neither Wilson nor Kowalczyk seemed to have answers on how those searches would be conducted, let alone who will be making the final decision.

Kowalczyk dismissed worries that the timing of Thomas’ decision may sway possible coaching candidates to stay away from Illinois since an interim AD may make the hire.

“Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith,” said Kowalczyk, who was hired by an interim chancellor at SIU. “I think the most important part of that decision with a coach is we have a great institution here with a tremendous body of work, tremendous history, tradition. To me, it should be a destination job.”

But without an answer on the permanent athletic director -- who undoubtedly will begin working for an interim chancellor because a permanent replacement likely won’t be found until next summer -- a prospective coach would be gambling a bit on an unknown destination.

“We’ve got people in these positions right now that are professionals,” Kowalczyk said. “Barb could be chancellor. She could be permanent chancellor. I could be permanent AD. (Interim provost Feser) could be a permanent provost. We got people who know what they’re doing. They’re professional. So if they (alumni and fans) need to hopefully take some faith and trust in that we know what we’re doing and we know how to handle these situations, then we’ll be fine.”

Kowalczyk has made football hires. One great: Jerry Kill, who led a huge turnaround at SIU (from 1-10 his first season at SIU to five straight FCS playoff appearances and three MVC titles). One bad: Steve Fairchild (who went 16-33 in four seasons at Colorado State). He also has made a few good basketball hires, promoting Matt Painter to replace Bruce Weber at SIU and hiring Tim Miles at Colorado State.

Kowalczyk, Wilson and Cubit all appear smart and qualified for their jobs. But none sounded empowered on Monday.

Hopefully, those above them -- first-year university president Timothy Killeen (what did he get into?!) and the board of trustees -- have a clearer short-term plan of how to cut through this gloomy, foggy mess. Maybe the Thomas domino was the first in a calculated rebuild of an athletic department damaged by Beckman's bungles.

Hopefully that's the case, because the UI's appointed leaders on Monday didn’t sound too certain about the next step.

“These are challenging circumstances with which to assume the mantle,” Kowalczyk said. “I’m going to take the helm and try to calm the waters and get this thing moving in the right direction.”

Good luck. The future forecast appears cloudy --  at least to the interims and the rest of us.

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