He Had Me At “Chicago” August 11, 2011
My least favorite 5-word phrase in the history of the English language, well, besides “we’re no longer serving breakfast”, would be “University of East Central Illinois”. I’ve seen it used for years on message boards and in comments beneath news articles to describe the small town/small minded nature of the Illini athletic department. Why do I hate it? Because it seems so true.
The flagship university from the 5th largest state in the nation really does feel like the flagship university of Champaign County. While states like Ohio and Michigan watch their flagship schools climb to new heights, we’ve watched ours tread water. While Penn State and Nebraska keep adding seats to their football stadiums, we’ve reduced ours from 72,000 to 60,000. While Michigan embraces Detroit and Missouri reaches out to St. Louis and Kansas City, we’ve mostly ignored Chicago.
Why? Well, there’s a number of reasons, but the number one reason, in my opinion, is that we’ve been content being the University of East Central Illinois. Here’s some stats I put together back in May:
Let’s recap here. A state with 13 million people ready to embrace the football and basketball programs like it’s 1984 again, fertile recruiting ground (2nd most NBA players, 12th most NFL players), and a deep history that includes Red Grange and Red Kerr, and yet these are the Big Ten athletic department revenue numbers for the 2008 season:
1. Ohio State – $117 million
2. Michigan – $99 million
3. Wisconsin – $93 million
4. Penn State – $91 million
5. Iowa – $81 million
6. Michigan State – $77 million
7. Nebraska – $75 million
8. Minnesota – $63 million
9. Purdue – $62 million
10. Illinois – $57 million
11. Indiana – $54 million
12. Northwestern – $41 million
I’m fully aware that other things play into this list, such as student fees and institutional support. So in some ways, our hands are tied. But they’re tied with scotch tape. 25 years ago, Wisconsin, stuck with miserable football and basketball teams through the mid-80′s, decided to put a full emphasis on building their football and basketball programs. 25 years later, they sit top-5 in the nation in athletic department revenue. Wisconsin. Wisconsin. We have every possible advantage, from alumni base to recruiting to state population, yet we’re a ridiculous distance behind Wisconsin.
So it’s simple. The committee must choose the man or woman who best understands this. The person who walks into the interview and speaks of the sleeping giant of Illinois athletics gets the job. That person can lead us to our rightful place as a top-10 athletic department.
I think that person is Mike Thomas. No, really. Check out this quote:
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state. I think we need to be the king of the state; I think we need to be the king of Chicago. I think we need to be branded that way, and if we’re doing things the right way – if we’re winning at a high level, we’re working with integrity, and our kids continue to get it done in the classroom – then our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”
King of Chicago? Yes, please. A new athletic director who starts off with a bang, saying phrases like “branded nationally” and “identifiable from coast to coast”? I’m all over it.
Because to me, his number one job is to remove the phrase “University of East Central Illinois” from the Illini fan vernacular. We need to embrace Chicago like never before. Check that – we need to send Chicago 11 red roses at work and then be standing at her car with the 12th when she’s heading home. We need to make ABI (Anywhere But Illinois) a thing of the football recruiting past. We need to mend fences with the Chicago Public League basketball community that have been broken for 25 years. We need to build a bridge to Chicago, and then we need to follow that up with an interstate and a high speed train.
If we’re going to grow the Illinois Athletic Department, it has to go far beyond coaching hires. It’s branding and selling and fundraising and selling. I don’t have to tell you that with a basketball program that’s lost 70 games the last 5 years and a football program that hasn’t been to back-to-back bowls since 1992, the popularity of the Illinois athletic department is pretty low in this state. Sure, there are crazy fans like you and me who will eat, sleep, and drink football and hoops no matter the won-loss record, but there are millions (yes, millions) of fans in Chicago who barely pay attention. It’s time to reach those fans that same way the Huskers reach Omaha (yuck) and the Hawkeyes reach Des Moines (gross).
Except we get to reach out to the third largest city in the country. The third largest city with this massive alumni base. A massive alumni base that remains mostly apathetic. From ticket sales to merchandise, we’re not Ohio State or even Wisconsin – but we should be. Build it, and they will come.
It’s not that non-Chicago fans and alumni aren’t important. I should know – I’m one of them. It’s important that we cater to the entire state, build our brand, and sell our athletic programs. But successful programs in Champaign need to start with Chicago, and it feels like we’ve always started with Champaign.
So I’m thrilled with this hire. Because I truly believe that Mike Thomas will start with Chicago. From reading his bio to listening to every interview I could get my ears on, it appears that he will be a forward-thinking leader for our athletic department. In the quote I listed above, he said the word “branded” three times. That tells me he gets it. Being an athletic director at a Big Ten University in 2011 is about a lot more than hiring two good coaches. That’s important, to be sure – winning programs will open the Chicago floodgates – but sustaining that winning environment goes far beyond the field and the court. It stretches from Champaign to Chicago.
One more quote before I’m done…
“From my reconnaissance, even within the conference, they think there is great opportunity here to continue to grow what’s already happened here. Whether you use the word sleeping giant or high ceiling, there’s room for growth here. It’s my job to make sure I do whatever possible to make sure that happens.”
I think I’m in love.