Almost a full month following the removal of Mike Thomas as athletics director, Illinois announced Friday that the search for his replacement is officially underway.
Interim university chancellor Barbara Wilson announced Friday the eight names that make up the search committee, saying that committee "will proceed expeditiously but thoroughly in that process."
The committee consists of Illinois professor Matt Wheeler, administration employee and former Illinois football player Mike Bass, associate athletics director Keiko Price, head women's soccer coach Janet Rayfield, associate athletics director Howard Milton, athletics board member Richard Stockton, Illinois Sixth Judicial Circuit Court judge Dan Flannell and current Illinois softball player Nicole Evans.
Wilson said she has not yet decided if the school will hire a search firm or not.
“I’ve described the athletic program as the front porch of this magnificent institution of higher education, meaning that it’s a setting where a variety of people engage with the university,” Wilson said in the announcement. “With that in mind, we’re looking for an athletic director with the vision and the skills to enhance the elements that are strong already, to rebuild where needed and to restore the athletics program to a position of pride for Illini Nation across the board.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]
The Illinois athletics department has dealt with myriad problems this year. Back in May, former Illinois football player Simon Cvijanovic sent out a string of tweets accusing head football coach Tim Beckman of being an abusive bully who mistreated injured players and threatened to take their scholarships away. Those accusations spurred an investigation into the football program, and the initial findings of that investigation backed up the claims, leading to Beckman's firing a week before the start of the season. More ugly details of Beckman's behavior came out in the full investigative report, which was released the same day Thomas was removed from his post.
But the football program wasn't the only one generating negative headlines. Several former member's of the women's basketball program alleged that coaches created an environment of racial hostility, treating black and white players differently and having segregated practices. A lawsuit was filed against the university, and a separate investigation was commissioned. But that investigation turned up no evidence to support those allegations.
Additionally, there was a lawsuit filed by a former soccer player, alleging mistreatment of an injury.
The search for a new athletics director might be officially underway Friday, but it was reported that the search had been unorganized prior, which could have led to a somewhat pressed-for-time decision to give Bill Cubit a two-year deal to stay on as the permanent head football coach. The length of the contract was roundly criticized as not long enough to properly attract recruits, and interim athletics director Paul Kowalczyk said it was just a two-year deal so a new athletics director could make a decision on keeping Cubit or bringing in a new head football coach when hired.
All the accusations and investigations and instability aside, Illinois is also struggling when it comes to the more typical reason an athletics director is judged: winning and losing by the two major programs. The football program went 12-25 in three seasons under Beckman and posted a 5-7 record this season, though it could make its second straight bowl appearance. Meanwhile, the men's basketball program under head coach John Groce has gone back-to-back seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance and is off to an ugly 3-5 start this season, the first time the team has lost five of its first eight games since the 1960s.