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Wisch: Mike Thomas’ To-Do List In Champaign

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Tim Beckman. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Tim Beckman. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Dave Wischnowsky Dave Wischnowsky
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in...
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By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Generally, contract extensions and pay raises come as a result of success. But for University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, apparently the hope in Champaign is that they’ll lead to success instead.

Last Thursday, Illinois’ third-year athletic director was awarded by the school’s board of trustees with a contract extension through Aug. 28, 2019, and a salary bump of $50,392 that pushes Thomas’ base compensation to $554,320 annually.

Those rewards come in spite of the fact that Thomas’ hand-picked football coach is 6-18 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten, his hand-picked basketball coach is currently mired in a six-game Big Ten losing streak and fans’ attendance at both Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center doesn’t exactly have the ticket office jumping for joy.

None of that makes right now seem like the ideal time to extend Thomas’ contract and give him more cash, but Illinois did. And since the AD clearly is now going to be around for a while, here are some things that I’d like to see him do himself.

Put the heat on Beckman

In the Land of Lincoln, Illini football remains the biggest riddle this side of the state’s pension crisis. Ron Guenther, a so-called “football guy,” never could figure it out, and Thomas, who hired several successful pigskin coaches prior to his arrival at Illinois, hasn’t figured it out either with his hiring of coach Tim Beckman.

With just one Big Ten victory to show for in two seasons – and that a narrow win over equally lowly Purdue – the heat is very much on Beckman from the disgruntled Illini fan base. As Beckman’s boss, Thomas needs to apply the same temperature levels.

While he may not say it publicly, Thomas should privately let Beckman know that unless he makes a bowl game this fall in Year 3 of his contract, he should start packing his bags.

Quite simply, Illini fans deserve better than what they’ve gotten from the football program. And Thomas needs to be the one to demand better. If Beckman doesn’t deliver it this fall, then the AD needs to hire someone who can.

Anything less than six wins and a bowl appearance should be unacceptable in 2014.

Keep an eye on Groce

I think John Groce is great, and that his hiring – as ham-handed as the process leading up to it was – remains the highlight of Thomas’ tenure.

But the Illini basketball coach also is not beyond reproach.

Most fans figured the Illini would experience a down year this season, but I’m not sure they also expected Illinois to struggle so mightily in losses to Northwestern and Purdue and to produce an offense that’s become almost unwatchable during the team’s current six-game skid.

Groce should be given leeway as he tries to rebuild the Illini roster into one that suits his system – one that ideally features someone who can shoot – but fans still need to cast a cautious eye about the direction of the program. Thomas does, too.

Because, while Groce looks good, he does still need to prove it.

Recruit the IHSA State Basketball Tournament

The IHSA boys’ state basketball tournaments may have been played in Peoria since 1995, but the games still belong in Champaign. And Thomas should start laying the groundwork with city officials to get them back inside the state’s marquee amateur hoops arena: State Farm Center.

(You can still call it Assembly Hall, if you like.)

In 2009, the IHSA and Peoria re-upped their state tournament contract through 2015. That expires next spring. And while now may not be the ideal time bring the tournaments back to Champaign with the multi-year renovation set to begin at State Farm Center this March, it is the ideal time to start developing a plan to lure them back.

In ’09, IHSA assistant executive director Kurt Gibson said about extending the contract with Peoria, “The feedback we get each year from our schools is always, ‘What a great experience. We felt like kings. There was no stone left unturned.’”

Thomas and Champaign officials should start looking for fresh stones to turn over and developing a plan to sell the benefits of rehabbed arena State Farm Center now, so IHSA officials will already be thinking about it later.

Getting the state tourneys back in town would be a feather in the cap of Illinois and add another recruiting arrow to Groce’s quiver.

Improve Illini presence in Chicago

By scheduling future home-and-home football series with North Carolina, South Florida, Virginia and Kansas, Thomas has done a nice job of setting up games with major-conference opponents that Illinois also should be competitive against in coming years.

But what he’s also done is ignore Chicago in the process. To up its stature in the state, the Illini football program needs a consistent presence in the city. Playing a game in Chicago every two decades – like the Illini have with Washington State in 1994 and Washington in 2013 – simply doesn’t cut it.

Since future football schedules already are filling up, Thomas should consider the possibility of pushing for the Northwestern-Illinois game to become an annual affair at Soldier Field. Such a move has the potential to be a smart one for everyone involved.

As for basketball, Thomas also needs to improve the Illini’s roundball presence in Chicago. The first step should be to find a way to get out of the school’s atrocious contract that requires it to play UIC at the United Center once every three years. Such an arrangement is a drag for everyone involved except UIC, and that includes Illinois fans and the half-empty United Center itself. Even one more game of that contract is too much, and the U of I school system should know it.

Beyond that, to become a bigger recruiting player in Chicago, it would help Illinois to become a bigger on-court player in Chicago. Thomas should look into ways that Illinois could play at the United Center twice a season. As for how exactly, well, I’ll let him figure it out.

After all, a guy has to earn that raise somehow.

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