CHAMPAIGN — When a visiting school is in town for a football game, University of Illinois Athletics Director Mike Thomas wouldn’t normally spend much time schmoozing with their top donors.
That might change this weekend when the Cincinnati Bearcats come to Memorial Stadium.
Because he was the AD at Cincinnati from 2005 to 2011 — prior to being named to lead the Illinois athletic department in August of 2011 — Thomas still has close relationships with many in the school’s administration and is on a first-name, back-slapping basis with a number of the high-profile fans associated with the Cincinnati program.
Many of them will be in Champaign this weekend.
“I still know all of their top donors,” Thomas said. “In fact when I go to the Final Four, one of their top donors still likes to hang out with me. There’s some very good people over there.”
In that sense, Thomas will experience something of a reunion this weekend as Cincinnati comes to Memorial Stadium for a football game at 11 a.m., Saturday.
Thomas was a big player in Cincinnati’s climb to football prominence.
Mark Dantonio was head coach when he arrived, staying for just one year before taking over at Michigan State.
That’s when Thomas made his mark.
His first big hire was to lure first Brian Kelly from Central Michigan and Kelly’s three Bearcat teams went 10-3, 11-3 and 12-0. That was good enough to land him the head coaching job at Notre Dame.
To replace Kelly, Thomas turned back to Central Michigan, this time plucking Butch Jones as his head coach.
“There was one hiccup that first season when we went 4-8, but Cincinnati was back to 10 wins the very next year,” Thomas said.
At the time, Cincinnati was hungry for national television exposure for its awakening football program. And that created challenges for Thomas.
“We played football games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, even Fridays to get exposure,” Thomas recalled. “Friday was a little difficult because we were playing in the hot bed of high school football, so you get some pushback from that.”
Thanks to the Big Ten Conference’s numerous TV deals, and the presence of the Big Ten Network, Illinois doesn’t have to play on Tuesdays or Friday’s to get attention, although Thomas pointed out that Minnesota and Indiana each opened their seasons on Thursday night.
If Thomas had his way, Illinois would be playing more night games and no 11 a.m. kickoffs. “From how we draw and from bringing people down from Chicago, 11 a.m. makes it difficult coming from the north,” Thomas said.
Butch Jones has since taken the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee but there’s no question that Thomas’ stock and reputation soared as an administrator who had a knack for hiring the right football coach.
That’s ironic, because many Illini fans are convinced Thomas took a swing and missed with his first major hire at Illinois. Tim Beckman’s first year as Illini head coach was a nightmare, going 2-10 while home attendance tumbled. Thomas is giving Beckman more time to show that first season was an aberration, and time will place a grade on Thomas’ Illini hiring handiwork.
No one seems to doubt that Thomas did the right thing when it came time to hire a men’s basketball coach. With this week’s news that 5-star recruit Leron Black had committed to the Illini, coach John Groce is one of the most popular people in all of Illinois athletics.
Groce and Thomas have some obvious ties to the state of Ohio.
While Thomas was making a name for himself as AD at Cincinnati and Groce earned national attention for his work as assistant coach at Ohio State, then as head coach at Ohio University.
“I’ve only been back to Cincinnati once since I came to Illinois, although I go by there or through there quite a bit on my travels,” Thomas said.
“Coach Groce and I have a deal. When we go through Cincinnati, we bring him back some Skyline chili,” citing the Ohio-based food outlet. “And when John goes through there, he brings Skyline chili to us.”
Interesting that Thomas helped create the successful program that Cincinnati brings to Memorial Stadium this weekend. His hire at Illinois, Tim Beckman, could use a lucky break. Nothing suggests Cincinnati is a team that will give him one.