“Distractions” is a pretty mild way of putting it.
The Illinois athletics department has been under siege for months after accusations painted coaches in both the football and women’s basketball programs as abusive tyrants. Those accusations led to investigations. One of the investigations led to a head coach’s firing. And now, the weight of the entire climate has ended the tenure of Mike Thomas as the university’s athletics director.
On the same day that the investigative report was released came an announcement that a “without cause” separation clause in Thomas’ contract removed him from a job he took over in August 2011.
Thomas seemed to try everything in his power to weather this storm for his school. He initially stood behind the accused coaches as information was gathered, called for investigations into the programs, instituted new policies in the department allowing student-athletes to better communicate with the administration, fired head football coach Tim Beckman when initial findings backed the accusations and looked good for not acting rashly when the investigation into the women’s basketball program turned up no evidence in support of claims of racial hostility.
But with the release of the full report containing ugly details of Beckman’s behavior on the job, it also appears that it was Thomas, as the ultimately responsible head of the department, who was either unaware or unable to do anything about a coach who was putting his players at physical risk and treating them poorly from a mental and emotional standpoint.
[MORE BIG TEN: Mike Thomas done as Illini athletics director]
No, there were no findings in the investigations that Thomas did anything wrong. But the “distractions,” as interim chancellor Barbara J. Wilson put it, would have most certainly continued had Thomas remained. Questions would have come asking what he knew, when he knew it, why he didn’t do something about it.
Illinois didn’t want to deal with it anymore. So Thomas was out.
“I want to be clear, these reports found no misconduct by director Mike Thomas and no violations of policies or standards,” Wilson said. “He’s done a good job of leading (the department of intercollegiate athletics) through recent challenges, and he is the one who actually requested the outside investigations. However, it’s time to put the distractions of these past months behind us and to put the focus back on the success of our athletic programs.
“This has not been an easy decision, but I believe it’s the one that allows all of us to concentrate on the future.”
Typically, athletics directors are held to the standard of their top two athletics programs. If the football and men’s basketball teams are winning, the AD looks good. If the football and men’s basketball teams are losing, everybody wants the AD fired. And so the calls for Thomas’ job were already numerous after Beckman reached just one bowl game (with merely a .500 record) in his his three seasons and John Groce reached just one NCAA tournament (bowing out in the Round of 32) in his first three seasons leading the basketball team.
Thomas’ circumstances were obviously different. And while there is plenty of criticism to be thrown his way regarding how his most high-profile employee was allowed to act the way he did, Thomas was found to have done nothing wrong in terms of treatment of student-athletes, and by his actions and by all accounts, he handled the situation correctly and professionally.
But Thomas’ departure isn’t about what he did or didn’t do. It’s about the athletics department and the university moving on.
“There have been distractions in last several months,” Wilson said, “and it’s just time for us to move forward.”
Moving on will occur in some fashion. Whether or not Bill Cubit remains the head football coach once the season concludes remains to be seen, with both Wilson and interim athletics director Paul Kowalczyk saying decisions will come once the season ends. The season ends in three weeks.
A new athletics director will eventually come, too, though whether that happens before or after a decision on the football coach is made remains to be seen, as well.
The future is anything but certain right now at Illinois, but what is certain is that there is a strong desire to move on from an ugly chapter in the athletics department’s history, a chapter not made ugly simply by losing on the football field but by the behavior of the man who was trying to win.
Beckman’s wrongdoings are a big deal. And the report outlined them in detailed fashion.
Like so many football coaches preach, you can’t worry about the past. By ridding itself of Thomas on Monday, Illinois is trying to put this all in the past and not worry about these “distractions” any longer.