With Tim Beckman out at Illinois, many questioned: Why isn’t Mike Thomas?
Thomas, the Illinois athletics director, has been at the forefront of an athletics department under siege this summer. Allegations of mistreatment in the football program that cost Beckman his job Friday, a lawsuit brought by former women’s basketball players claiming racial hostility and a lawsuit brought by a former soccer player claiming medical mistreatment have all thrown the department into the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Typically, a failing football and men’s basketball program will be enough to put an AD on the hot seat. The Illini football team won 12 games in three seasons under Beckman. The Illini men’s basketball team has missed the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons and recently had its own public negativity as a player was dismissed following his second arrest in a little more than a year. Add in this off-the-field/court firestorm involving multiple programs, and it’s safe to wonder whether Thomas’ job is in jeopardy.
But after the top two university officials resigned in the past few weeks, is Thomas going anywhere?
[MORE BIG TEN: Illini dismiss head football coach Tim Beckman]
“It doesn’t hinder the passion and energy that I come to work with every day. I’m all about the orange and blue. It’s an exciting time to be here,” Thomas said Friday. “Obviously, we’re working through some challenges, which people will tell you are opportunities. And when these things happen, you need to take advantage of them and say, ‘How can I make this a better place?’ That’s what’s happening here. … I’m excited about the future and know that it’s very, very bright.”
That’s not exactly the same picture everyone else is seeing.
Thomas reacted appropriately when learning of the initial findings of an investigation into the football team that revealed Beckman influenced medical diagnoses to keep injured players on the field and inappropriately handled scholarship situations of players. He dismissed Beckman. But how did he not learn of these issues at an earlier date?
He claimed that he had no idea of anything like this happening before Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter with his allegations toward Beckman back in May, and the athletics director’s answer to how that was possible was hardly satisfying.
[MORE BIG TEN: Mistreatment of players, not record, did in Illini's Beckman]
“We have 525 student-athletes. We have 21 sports. We have 300 full-time staff,” Thomas said, as if he was implying he was too busy with other things to notice what was going on in his department’s highest-profile program. “For us, it’s about making sure that we’re going about doing things the right way. And when we find out there’s improvements that need to be made or changes that need to be made, we’ll address those in the appropriate fashion.
“It’s a large operation, and I think that you have several layers. Everyone needs to be held accountable. And this situation, it’s an opportunity, when we look at the avenues of reporting. Why didn’t we know these things? Why weren’t they shared with people?”
Thomas then pointed to the changes he’s announced since to better facilitate student-athletes who need to bypass their coaches and discuss matters with members of the administration. After hearing what Beckman did, those are admirable reforms, but whether those will be a success in stopping this kind of behavior before it gets to far remains to be seen.
But while the head football coach no longer has his job thanks to his outrageous behavior toward the student-athletes he often referred to as his sons, the athletics director who it happened under is still employed and said he’ll be leading the search for Beckman’s long-term replacement.
[MORE BIG TEN: Illini hire group of former Big 12 commish Dan Beebe]
This isn’t to say that Thomas deserves to lose his job. The full report might reveal something different, but he wasn’t the one doing these things to student-athletes. At the same time, though, some of Thomas’ comments Friday made it seem like he doesn’t realize how bad things are. Multiple programs have been under siege this summer, and the biggest program at the school just lost its head coach a week before the start of the season.
Things are not good.
But Thomas doesn’t seem to notice.
“I think that the culture in our division of intercollegiate athletics is tremendous, and I believe in our coaches and our staff and our student-athletes,” Thomas said. “I think they come to work every day and participate every day wearing integrity on their sleeve, and it’s all about doing things the right way.
“I’m confident in the program that I’m leading. I know that when you’re trying to build a program that — especially in a big-vision way — that you’re going to have obstacles and adversity along the way. And I’m certainly appreciative of the people that we have working over at the DIA — our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes — and the hard work and effort that they put in to make it the special place that it is.”