Big Ten

Illini remove Mike Thomas to put end to months of 'distractions'


Illini remove Mike Thomas to put end to months of 'distractions'

“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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Report contains ugly details of Tim Beckman's behavior as Illini coach]

“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.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?