In the latest of several upper-level administrative changes made in the Big Ten, and throughout the Midwest, actually, Illinois announced Monday morning that the school had terminated Athletic Director Mike Thomas.
A press conference was held on Monday in which interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson introduced interim AD Paul Kowalczyk. Specific questions were asked of both regarding interim football head coach Bill Cubit. That’s a lot of interim tags; both Wilson and Kowalczyk said a decision will be made about the head football coach after the season.
Thomas’ firing coincided with the release of the full report of Illinois’ independent investigation into allegations of player mistreatment in the department’s football, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer programs.
Specifically, the allegations regarding the football program involved improper and/or abusive handling of player injuries and of certain players’ scholarships; the allegations became public over the summer when former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter to air his grievances. One week before the football season was set to begin, Thomas fired third-year head coach Tim Beckman when the department was made privy to the preliminary findings of the independent investigation.
Several women’s basketball players have sued the school, Thomas, and head coach Matt Bollant over allegations that he contributed to a racially abusive environment in their program. Most of the allegations related to former assistant Mike Divilbiss, a long-time associate of Bollant’s, who left the program in May.
About all those interim tags: Illinois will be in a holding pattern for at least a few months. Many fans were unhappy with Thomas in general, who was hired from the University of Cincinnati in 2011 to replace the retiring Ron Guenther. Much of the displeasure revolved around the at-best middling results produced by Illinois’ marquee revenue programs, football and men’s basketball.
Beckman himself was at least the third choice when he was tabbed after the 2011 season to replace Ron Zook. Even before Cvijanovic’s Twitter campaign, most felt Beckman would be coaching for his job in 2015, what with his 4-20 Big Ten record. His team unexpectedly rallied last year to a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but were handily beaten there by Conference USA Louisiana Tech.
Cubit, at least, now has the Illini one win shy of bowl-eligibility this season. Injuries to several ball carriers have held the team back this season, but Cubit’s made a solid good case to keep the job on a full-time basis. With an interim AD, and to begin sewing up next season’s recruiting class, the program may well be best served by keeping Cubit on.
Thomas was also responsible for hiring after the 2012 season men’s basketball head coach John Groce, also not a first choice. Most see Illinois as a “basketball school” and Groce’s on-court results haven’t satisfied many fans. Without Thomas, Groce’s future may be in doubt as well.
Groce’s tenure started well enough, getting to the NCAAs and falling in the third round 63-59 to no. 2 seed Miami, but it’s been two NITs since then. Last season’s culmination was particularly startling, with the Illini getting essentially blown out by Michigan in their first Big Ten Tournament game and then going from bad to worse in their NIT loss Alabama, during which the halftime score saw the Tide, who fired head coach Anthony Grant two days before, up 46-22.
Having to overcome several injuries, including another season-ending one to senior point guard Tracy Abrams, and a grueling non-conference schedule that includes games against Providence and Notre Dame, Groce will have his work cut for him this season.
The Illinois baseball team was historically successful in 2015, but in the Big Ten, and for ill or good, baseball just isn’t a draw enough to keep fans happy about the overall direction of an athletic department.
As of today, though, Illini fans wanting rid of Thomas – for whatever reason – got their wish. How long until stability and consistent winning return to the teams they support is, however, an open a question as ever.