By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Last August, Mike Thomas managed to throw down a gauntlet in Chicago.
While perched behind a podium in Champaign.
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” the University of Illinois’ new athletic director said during his introductory press conference when he was asked about raising the profile of Illini sports. “I think we need to be the king of the state.
“I think we need to be the king of Chicago.”
Now, many people (including myself) would argue that the best way for Illinois to become the king of anything, let alone Chicago, would be by winning more basketball and football games.
But, as Thursday night’s disappointing basketball loss to Michigan at Assembly Hall reminded us yet again, those wins will have to wait.
This week, however, it appears that Thomas has wasted little time in picking up the gauntlet he tossed into the Loop as he revealed the first steps in what’s likely a multi-part plan for Illinois to “conquer” Chicago – if, of course, Chicago can be conquered at all.
On Wednesday, Illinois announced that it has formed a cross-promotional partnership with the Chicago White Sox that will allow Illini fans to receive special offers to selected games, suites, group sales and patio parties. On June 1, the Sox will hold an Illini Day event at U.S. Cellular Field similar to the one held each season at Wrigley for the past decade.
According to the university, the baseball franchise will also promote Illinois athletics and special incentives to Sox fans throughout the year.
“We are very excited to announce our relationship with the White Sox,” Thomas said in a statement. “We feel this will increase Fighting Illini exposure in Chicago, and allow some great opportunities for fans to experience exciting Major League baseball at U.S. Cellular Field.”
He then added, “This is among the first of several cross-promotional relationships coming from the Illini and organizations in Chicago.”
Thomas wasn’t kidding. Just one day later, Illinois issued another release announcing a similar cross-promotional partnership with Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.
This relationship will involve special offers for Illinois fans at Fire events, and for those Illini who purchase season tickets for the soccer club, 20 percent of the proceeds will benefit the University of Illinois Athletics IFUND.
“This is another opportunity for Illini fans and alumni in the Chicago metro area to take advantage of relationships we are building, and at the same time open a creative avenue to help support Illinois student-athletes,” Thomas explained in the release.
After Illinois’ announcement about its new relationship with the White Sox, I contacted the school’s athletic department to inquire whether any similar partnership with the Cubs would be forthcoming.
“We are working with the Cubs on Illini Day at Wrigley, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, July 28,” Illinois assistant athletic director Kent Brown replied via email. “We will have more information about that day coming soon … still working on details … so, nothing official at this time.
“Not sure it will be the same cross-promotional relationship, but we continue to have a good relationship with the North Siders.”
Now, cross-promotions with the Cubs would surely be a major boon for Thomas’ grand plans, as would relationships with the Bears and Bulls – although I’m not certain if the NCAA frowns on colleges connecting with NFL and NBA franchises in such ways.
Nevertheless, by establishing partnerships with the Sox and Fire, I’m again impressed with how Thomas has handled himself thus far in what’s become an increasingly tricky situation in Champaign.
Keep in mind that by the time this school year ends, Thomas very well may have replaced his school’s football coach, men’s basketball coach and women’s basketball coach – all in his first eight months on the job.
And it isn’t as if Thomas arrived at Illinois looking to immediately make heads roll. Rather, Illinois’ highest-profile coaches have left him with little choice but to make changes. That, without a doubt, is an enormous indictment of the sorry state of affairs that Illinois AD Ron Guenther left the program in upon his retirement.
If you factor in all those coaching changes – both realized (in football) and potential (in hoops) – along with Thomas’ emerging plan to re-brand Illinois throughout Chicagoland, he may end orchestrating the most massive facelift of a major-conference athletic program that any AD has ever undertaken in such an abbreviated time frame.
Last August, after Thomas announced his intent for Illinois to become “King of Chicago,” I wrote: “With more than 300,000 alumni from a dozen Big Ten schools splintering the Chicagoland area college sports fan base, the city indeed is one tough nut to crack. A winning battle plan needs to be clever, consistent and, most likely, painstakingly complex.”
The task has gotten no less complex since then, and I imagine the plan has only become more so.
“Our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast,” Thomas said last summer “But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”
With this week’s cross-promotional news, that work has now officially begun. But for any of it to work at all, Illinois needs to start winning, too.
And that is the true task at hand for Thomas & Co.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.