By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) In his four-year tenure as the Illinois athletic director, Mike Thomas dragged the university through plenty of public embarrassments.
He was the man who literally sat across from Tim Beckman and elected to hire him in December 2011 over several other coaches said to have interest in being Illinois’ football coach. Two of Thomas’ programs — football and women’s basketball — faced player mistreatment scandals. The allegations against Beckman were discovered to be true in an independent investigation, as he was found to systematically influence the medial staff’s decisions by encouraging players to play through injuries and threatening to pull scholarships from some if they didn’t. Beckman was fired just a week before the season when the preliminary findings reflected poorly on him.
Seven former Illinois women’s basketball players have filed a $10 million racial discrimination suit, and a former women’s soccer player has also sued the school for improperly treating her concussions.
Then there was Thomas’ handling of a spring 2012 search for a men’s basketball coach. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart each rejected a pursuit by the Illini. Thomas then hired John Groce, under whom the program has regressed.
In a touch over four years, Thomas has nearly decimated the proud athletic tradition in Champaign. Finally, the university announced Monday it had fired Thomas.
I’m not one to cavalierly target a person’s job. I don’t like to see people lose their jobs — no matter how much they make. But Thomas was as clueless as the maligned Beckman. Thomas just happened to be little bit better spoken.
Unfortunately for interim coach Bill Cubit and the rest of his football staff, they may get washed up in the wake of Thomas failures. Had Cubit been given an entire offseason to mold a team and recruit instead of getting the job a week before the season opener, it’s possible the Illini would be better than their relatively impressive 5-4 record this season.
But it’s likely that Cubit, still associated with the Beckman regime, won’t have the “interim” tag removed.
On the hardwood, Groce is facing some skepticism as well. If he fails to make the NCAA Tournament this season for the third consecutive year, he could be fired as well.
Thomas couldn’t be permitted to fill these potential vacancies.
An athletic director has two mandates: raise money and the profile of the athletic department.
In fairness, Thomas proved to be a adept fundraiser. The release sent out by the university Monday states that Thomas oversaw three of the four highest annual fundraising totals in the university history. He has to be commended for that if we’re to also admonish him for his failings.
But under his leadership, Illinois athletics has become a punch line. Beckman press conferences were anticipated for their humor, not substance. The fact that few knew about Thomas’ success as a fundraiser means that there was more talk about scandal than progress.
After years of regression, the athletic department can finally say it has moved forward.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.