USA Today // Bradley Leeb

Werner's Whits: What's next?

Mike Thomas is out as Illinois athletic director, so what's next?

One day after the dismissal of athletic director Mike Thomas, Illinois athletics leaders were scheduled to have an executive staff meeting on Tuesday morning. Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson was scheduled to be present. The hope would be that she would give the current DIA leadership, led by interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, some direction or at least some sense of direction.

There is a lot of experience atop the DIA. Kowalczyk served as an athletic director from 2000-11 between Southern Illinois and Colorado State. UI associate athletic director Mike Waddell was an athletic director at Towson University and also served as interim AD at Akron for two months after former Illinois AD Mike Thomas left for Cincinnati. UI associate athletic director Jason Lener is expected to be an athletic director someday.  Everyone in the athletic department -- most of the higher-ups were hired by Thomas -- has a job to do in the short-term, but most planning is done months to a year in advance so there is little time to sit around and wonder what to do. For instance, Illinois has a nine-figure football facility renovation plan in the works. Kowalczyk and the rest of his crew will have to get up to speed quickly so that those plans don't lose momentum. But Wilson and Kowalczyk need to inspire confidence in the people  under them that they have a plan and will keep the ball rolling.

Other reaction fires are not expected. Thomas was dismissed without cause. No one is expected to fired with cause in connection to football Tim Beckman's alleged abuse and medical misconduct, supported by Monday's release of the results of an independent investigation.

The timing of Thomas' dismissal is unfortunate. Kowalczyk said he was told of the plans last Wednesday. Wilson said she'd been thinking of the move for a while. It's a safe bet that this move has been in the works for a while, but the details had to be worked out. Whether the powers that be -- Wilson? President Timothy Killeen? Board of Trustees? -- have been working on the next step for a while remains to be seen.

Even if an athletic director is hired quickly, expect a full-fledged coaching search. Thomas had all season to think about and make his decision. Kowalczyk or a new athletic director is starting from scratch. Though every athletics administrator would tell you that they always have a list handy, just in case. Illinois may or may not use a search firm -- mostly for legal reasons -- but it shouldn't have that big of an impact on the ultimate choice. Those with athletics experience seem to think the timing of the tumult will have less impact than the tumult itself. The two open athletics jobs are high-profile and will attract talented people. Illinois leadership just needs to find the right leaders.

Potential candidates for the new AD have been circulating for a while. And I don't have many different ones to add, but expect it to be someone with Illinois ties. Reaction hiring seems to be the trend. Thomas, an outsider, was hired to replace Ron Guenther, an Illinois grad who some thought was too insulated to East Central Illinois and didn't expand the Illinois brand enough. Now, there is a call to replace Thomas -- who some thought was too business-like and distant despite several modern advancements in branding facilities and marketing -- with a more modern "Illinois man/woman." Colorado athletics director Rick George, a former Illinois football player and football staff member, is a popular name. He makes $700,000 annualy at CU. George has extensive fund-raising experience as Colorado AD and before that, as president of the PGA Tour's Champions Tour. Word is that George would have high interest in the job, though he wouldn't want to interview. Another popular name who has the respect of people inside and outside the Illinois athletics department: Craig Tiley. The former Illinois tennis coach is serving as CEO of Tennis Australia and is in charge of running the Australian Open. Eastern Illinois athletic director Tom Michael doesn't have as much executive experience as other candidates, but the former UI associate athletic director has an ingrained understanding of the DIA's current strengths and challenges. Other names being bandied about: Shawn Wax, a former Illinois football player and athletics administrator now serving on the academic side at the University of Iowa; former Illini wrestling coach Mark Johnson, now the CEO of Champaign County YMCA; and current Illini golf coach Mike Small, one of the most successful Illinois coaches ever and a strong fund-raiser within his sport.

The Illinois athletic department could lose up to $4 million for this whole affair. Thomas receives a $2.5 million buyout and the football investigation fees could rise as high as $1.5 million -- all paid for through the athletic budget (ticket revenue, media rights, etc.), separate from the state university budget (taxpayer money). Yes, that could have an effect on the budget for a new coaching staff, though it is unknown how large of an impact. For reference, the Illinois football staff salaries this season cost about $4 million.

Bill Cubit's candidacy? Would Illinois give a five-year extension toa  coach who went 6-6? Doubtful. 7-5? Questionable. 8-4 with a win over Ohio State? How could they not?! Cubit's candidacy has always been a longshot -- even more so due to injuries, though being cleared by the investigation was one big hurdle -- but Kowalczyk was probably being honest when he said that he will use the rest of the season to evaluate. Of course, Kowalczyk might not make the hire.

At Illinois, it's complicated right now.


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