Harrington: Tom Michael for Illini AD

Illini Inquirer basketball analyst Sean Harrington makes the case for Tom Michael as the next Illinois athletic director

The University of Illinois athletic department needs something to be proud of.

Lately, the Illini name has been attached to mostly bad news stories: the resignation of chancellor Phyllis Wise, the firing of athletic director Mike Thomas for lack of control over the athletic department, the firing of head football coach Tim Beckman, and lawsuits from soccer and women’s basketball players against the department.

The Illini need to bring in an athletic director who has a great image, someone the community and alums can be proud to call their own.

Enter Tom Michael.  

Tom Michael would come to Illinois with a great image. The current Eastern Illinois athletic director was a student-athlete at the University of Illinois, and the former Illini basketball player excelled in the classroom as well and on the court. Tom knows what it's like to be a student-athlete at Illinois. Right now, with student-athletes bringing lawsuits against the department, we need a leader that has been in their shoes and can relate to the student-athletes at the University of Illinois.

Tom Michael has been a part of the Illinois athletic department for nearly 20 years. Some people point to that as a negative. Is he too much like former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther? That is not all a bad thing. Michael has seen several Big Ten Championships in many different sports. In those years, he also saw some low times. By witnessing first hand what was successful and what has failed at this University, he has a great perspective on how things need to be done to be successful and also knows what to avoid repeating past mistakes. The best time to learn and grow is when there is failure. I witnessed basketball staffs that were successful and some that failed. Without question, I learned more on what not to do on the staffs that failed than what to do on the staffs that were successful. Each university operates differently and no one has a better feel for the way the University of Illinois does business than Tom Michael.  

This is not a stepping stone job for Tom Michael. This would be a final destination. Athletic director positions are no different than any other job. If you are looking to move on to a “better” job, then you will always put yourself ahead of the company or university. If you are thinking about your next job, then you are not looking out for the best interests of your student-athletes at this job. If the women’s volleyball team is in the National Championship, your athletic director better be there. Tom Michael will be there. When the student-athletes knows the athletic director cares about them, then they know the athletic director is making decisions in their best interest.  

Not only will Tom Michael have the best interest of the student-athletes, but he will be hungry. Does he have enough experience? At some point everyone is new to a position or title. What Tom might lack in athletic director experience -- he's took the Eastern Illinois AD job during the summer of 2014 -- he would make up with a drive to make Illinois the best athletic institution possible. He has energy and a passion right now. It might not be the best situation for Illinois to hire someone that will just rely on what has worked at other universities. This job is going to require the athletic director to be all-in. There will be a re-evaluation of the department from top to bottom. You will need someone that is excited and hungry.  

It is time to bring back the former student-athletes from all the programs to be part of the family. Tom Michael has had a personal relationship with several former student-athletes in his time at Illinois. He helped guide them through their academics and witnessed the accomplishments they had in their field of play. By building those bonds and relationships it would be easy for former student-athletes to come back for events and competitions and be a part of the Illini family. It is very difficult for a former student-athlete to get a phone call or e-mail from someone they don’t know and feel welcome to come back to the University for events. Tom Michael brings a familiar face back to the department.

Does Tom Michael have enough fund-raising experience? Fund-raising is a huge part of being an athletic director nowadays. Fund-raising is all about building relationships. It would be very difficult to find someone that will have better relationships in the state of Illinois than Tom Michael. No one is going to give money to someone that is just trying to sell something to them. But most will give money to someone that truly believes in the vision and potential of the University. When Tom Michael speaks to alumni and booster groups, he does not have to fake his passion and belief in the Illini. You can’t fake real.   

With a great personal image, a pride to be an Illini, an understanding of how the University operates, a dream destination and a strong bond with former student-athletes and alums, the time is right to bring Tom Michael back to the University of Illinois to be the next athletic director.


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