UI Trustees Panel Endorses Extension for Athletic Director
University of Illinois Trustees are poised to vote on a 2-year extension for the school’s athletic director.
A Trustees committee Thursday endorsed the plan for Mike Thomas, which would boost his salary to $554,000.
He currently earns just under $504,000 in a contract that expires in 2016. In just over two years, he’s fired and hired coaches for men’s and women’s basketball and football, and overseen the $60-million plan to renovate the State Farm Center.
U of I Urbana campus Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said this involves much more than sports. He says there are ‘metrics’ tied to it, including the academic performance of student athletes.
"My concern is how they are doing in the classroom, and how are we preparing them for success when they leave here all around," he said. "That's something that Chancellor (Phyllis Wise) and myself have been talking to Mike about. It's taken very seriously, and we see improvment all around."
Adesida says tutoring and other programs have helped those grades ‘significantly’ the last couple of years, but he didn't have specifics about how much grade point averages have improved.
Thomas’ salary was a concern for Trustee James Montgomery, who said there’s a public perception the U of I sometimes pays more for athletics than academics, but Adesida said Thomas is in the ‘middle of the pack’ when compared to other Big Ten schools.
Trustee Pam Strobel said she recommended the extension based on her interactions with Thomas.
U of I Trustees will take up the plan when they meet in two weeks on the Chicago campus.
Fighting Illini men's basketball coach Bruce Weber will not return next season.
U of I Athletics Director Mike Thomas has announced that Weber, whose team lost to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, has been dismissed.
Weber came to Illinois in 2003, and guided the team to its first Big Ten title in more than 50 years, and a berth in the Sweet 16. In his second season, the team earned another Big Ten title, finishing with a record of 37-2, losing only to North Carolina in the NCAA title game. But the Illini have had a rocky season, losing 12 of their last 14 games. The Illini closed the year 2-12.
Weber said he is proud of what he accomplished at Illinois, but knows coaching is a bottom-line business.
"Trying to get us to come together as a team, we all had a link and mine was the last one," Weber said. "I only wish I could have connected it, and we had something special to finish the season."
Assistant Coach Jerrance Howard will fill in for Weber on an interim basis. Athletic Director Mike Thomas said a national search will begin to find a new head basketball coach.
"We will move quickly, but we will move diligently, and I'm excited about the prospects of this program for the future," Thomas said. "Certainly, a key to that is feeling like we have the right person in place to lead what is a very national program. "
Weber has three years remaining on his contract, and will receive a buyout of $1.3 million annually.
This is the third dismissal for Thomas, who fired football coach Ron Zook and dismissed women's basketball coach Jolette Law a week ago.
Ron Zook's first time addressing the media as the University of Illinois' former football coach was not about what went wrong this season or the future of his career. Instead, he recognized some of the people who backed him over his seven-year stint at the U of I.
In a Sunday afternoon press conference in the U of I football squad room, Zook didn't take questions. Rather, he simply said thank you to many, including former athletic director Ron Guenther for giving him a chance, current AD Mike Thomas, and U of I President Michael Hogan. Zook says sometimes, their jobs include making difficult decisions, and he respects that.
But the now-former coach says there's a lot to look forward to in the football program's future.
"I see our facilities - team - the foundation in place - two terrific bowl trips, and hopefully a third this year," said Zook. "If it falls right, our fifth year seniors will get their third bowl trip. And our players can become the first at our school with two bowl victories. I think our program is very close, I really do. We just didn't quite finish a few games here and there, and I'm proud of how close we are."
If the Illini are selected for a bowl game, it would mark their first back to back bowl appearances since 1991 and 92. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will serve as interim coach.
Zook got a bit emotional, pausing when thanking his players, some of them who were in the press conference, calling the team a family. Zook says he wants to make sure the players are ok, and "for that reason, it's not the time to entertain questions, after I've had some time to digest and reflect, I think will be a better time for that, I hope you all understand. Thank you."
With that, Zook left the podium following a 2 and a half minute statement.
U of I Athletic Director Mike Thomas says the search for a new football coach begins immediately. But he wouldn't name specific candidates, or give a timeline for that search. And Thomas says he wouldn't rule out someone without head coaching experience, noting that academics and recruiting are also important.
He says another key factor for coaching at Illinois is success within the Big Ten conference, where the winning percentage was about 30-percent under Zook.
"So I think when you look at us first of all in a conference, are we competitive in a very good football conference?," said Thomas. "But when you're competing at the highest level, as you see with the other teams that are doing that right, that's when your name is in the national picture, they're talking about you for BCS Bowl games, and you're traditionally thought of a Top 25 team."
Thomas says he made the decision to dismiss Zook after Saturday's 27-to-7 defeat at Minnesota. He says it's easy to use the economy as an excuse for lighter attendance at Illini games, but he notes other schools are finding ways to fill the stadium. Thomas says that comes down to the quality of play on the field.
"This program - you need to feel like there's hope around it, and that people are getting excited, and that people are selling tickets," he said. "And when an Ohio State or a Wisconsin shows up, that the stadium is being sold. As a matter of fact, demand exceeds the capacity, and that's not really where we're at right now, but the hope is that someday we get there."
Zook is 34-51 at Illinois. He took the 2007 team to the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. Last season's squad beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Ron Zook talks to the media on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 hours after being fired as the University of Illinois' football coach
Mike Thomas will take the helm of the University of Illinois' athletic department before the season's first football game on Sept. 3.
The 51-year-old Thomas is currently the athletic director at the University of Cincinnati, and before that he had the same position at the University of Akron.
During his tenure in Cincinnati, Thomas is credited with boosting UC's athletic program to national prominence, while raising money for the department's budget by $7 million dollars. He also lowered the annual operating deficit by more than $6 million. Thomas said fundraising will be one of his top priorities at the U of I.
"We need to get out there, and probably raise more money," Thomas said. "With tuition going up every year, it's almost gone up seven percent this year. You know, I think that's going to be key. I think that's a pressing issue, but it always will be."
Thomas added that the U of I's sports teams need to be branded better nationally.
"I think we need to be the king of the state," he said. "If we're doing things the right way, if we're winning at a high level, if we're working with integrity, and our kids continue to get it done in the classroom, our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast."
Thomas replaces long-time U of I athletics director Ron Guenther, who retired this summer after nearly 20 years on the job.
Among the many issues facing Thomas at the U of I are plans to expand Assembly Hall. University President Michael Hogan said that project is still on track to move forward.
"We have hired an architectural engineering firm to evaluate Assembly Hall, and to give us some options on what we might do and what we can afford," Hogan explained. "When Mike gets here, that will be one of his very first assignments."
Thomas' appointment comes one day after the university announced Phyllis Wise would become the next chancellor and vice president of the Urbana campus. Wise is expected to officially start her job Oct. 1, pending approval by the university's Board of Trustees
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther says he will retire after his contract runs out June 30th.
Guenther said in a news release Monday that he's been working with the university on a succession plan and a search committee has started looking for his replacement. Guenther had talked recently about possibly staying on after June to begin work on a planned renovation of the Assembly Hall.
Guenther's 19 years on the job have been marked by a number of sports-related construction projects. They include the recent $121 million renovation of Memorial Stadium. Interim Vice President and Chancellor Bob Easter praised Guenther for his integrity and high athlete graduation rates.
Guenther is a University of Illinois graduate and played on the football team in the early 1960s.