Summer Conversations: Mike Thomas June 11, 2012
I’m going through these conversations in the order in which they took place 11 days ago (11 days and I’ve only posted the Groce interview? Lazy bloggers are lazy.) So after I sat down with the ridiculously impressive John Groce before the St. Louis Illini Caravan event, I sat and chatted with his boss.
Mike Thomas, as you know, has had a whirlwind nine months. He’s had to transition from one University President to the next, reorganize his staff, bring in his deputy (think first officer, not wild west), settle assistant coaching contract issues, go to BCS meetings, and oh yeah, fire the three highest profile coaches.
I guess he didn’t have to. His predecessor slow-played his coaching changes, opting for an it-might-turn-around-next-season-and-change-can-sometimes-be-bad approach. Thomas could have gone in that direction, but he’s done just the opposite. Every desk in every major office has been cleaned out in the last 6 months, save for one assistant coach and his ball-on-a-stick. Meet the new boss, not at all like the old boss.
I was very impressed with Coach Groce. He’s an intense, focused individual. Is that what you saw in him when you were looking for a basketball coach? He seems to have a drive that you don’t see in many coaches.
Yes. He has a drive. He’s intense. He’s a grinder. He has a lot of energy. He’s very passionate. He has a tremendous work ethic. I saw a lot of those things in him. The things I saw in him are the same as a lot of the people he has past experience working with in the basketball world. People that are experts and know a lot about the game. They’d say the same about him as well.
So how has the reception been at the Caravan events?
It’s been terrific. This is our 9th city in 12 days, and the first 8 cities have all been record crowds. The fans have been very receptive, and the response has been very positive. It’s really been terrific.
Talk to me about branding this University. You’ve said that word many times – “branding”. You said it in your introductory press conference, and you’ve said it in other press conferences. If you would, talk a little bit about branding Illinois nationally.
First of all, I think we need to do a better job even on our own campus. And our own state. We’ve talked about Chicago and we’ve talked about St. Louis – we need to have a message that’s consistent. This is who we are, this is what we’re about. We are the state of Illinois’ school, and we have to have a consistent message that’s not just there for a short time period, but is there for the long haul.
You go to Detroit, and Michigan stuff is everywhere. That’s not the case for us in Chicago – it never has been, and Chicago is a different animal than Detroit – but do you think you can extend our reach into Chicago? Is that a goal to be like what other Big Ten programs do in their larger metropolitan areas?
I think Chicago is going to be difficult in the sense that almost every Big Ten school has a presence there. Even Nebraska. But we obviously have the largest alumni base of any of the other Big Ten schools in Chicago.
Our goal in Chicago is this: we already have people engaged in what were doing, we have people in Chicago that are probably on the edge – people who went to the University of Illinois but are now on the edge – and you have those alumni in Chicago who are disengaged. Our goal, really, is to engage those people who already have a familiarity or a relationship with our University. It may not be with athletics, but a relationship with our University. I don’t think we’re going to “flip” those people that are graduates or have relationships with other universities.
So you have your own that you need to work on, and then there’s probably a discretionary – a gray area – of those that aren’t attached to any university. I think any of those that you could pick up would be icing on the cake.
You said the word “icing” there, and I’m going to use that to segue to another question I had.
(laughs) I don’t get that question a lot, but I’ve had that question a few times in my 9 months here.
One of my roommates at Illinois played on the club hockey team, so it was a big part of my experience when I was a student. Friday and Saturday night games with fairly large crowds – it was a pretty big thing, even just at the club level. So I’ve always been curious if – obviously you’d need a different arena, so you’d need a facility – but is there anything in any long range plan?
We really haven’t put much time or thought into that. I know that they have a great club program here, and I know they’re well supported, but for us right now, we’re just trying to do what we can do with the 19 sports that we have, and support all of them at the level that they need to be supported to compete at the highest level and have a great student experience for our student athletes.
So at this point, no, not really. But I am a fan. I’m from Denver, I’m an Avalanche fan, and I worked at the University of Denver for seven years, so I know something about the sport of college ice hockey. But right now, that’s not something we’re pursuing.
Let’s talk a little about football scheduling. In the past, we’ve played – well, you were at Cincinnati when we played the 12-0 Bearcats, and I think our non-conference opponents that were 12-0, 9-3, and 8-4 – so are you involved in football scheduling, or do you let Coach Beckman get involved with that, or how do you view football scheduling?
Really, myself and my deputy AD Jason Lener will do the football scheduling. But we’ll consult with Coach Beckman, we won’t schedule anything or get too far down the path unless he’s engaged in that conversation.
I know that Illinois, in the last four years, has had the most difficult non-conference schedule in terms of opponents’ records. Which for a struggling program trying to get on its feet probably isn’t the best. Do you have a philosophy toward scheduling – one MAC game, one BCS opponent, something like that – or are you right now just trying to fill in the next few years with some games already on the schedule?
I think that there has to be some balance there. I think it also is, as you said, where your program is at the time. When you’re trying to build a foundation do you want to bite off more that you can chew? No. So I think when you are an established program that’s a top-10 or a top-20 program, you might be able to schedule a little bit differently.
You have to find the sweet spot. You want to find a schedule that provides some balance but also is attractive to your fans, especially for those games that are going to be played in Memorial Stadium.
So in your first year, you have a volleyball team that’s in the national championship game, you had a gymnastics team win a national championship, you had a golfer win a national championship – this might be the highest finish in the Directors Cup in a while, so you have to feel pretty good about your first year.
Well, we’re 19th right now. We have to have a strong spring finish to finish in the top-20. Our highest finish ever is 20th, and we were 23rd last year. So if we have a strong spring, that may happen. Unfortunately, Thomas Pieters winning an individual national championship in golf doesn’t count in the team standings. It’s all based on your team points.
Our women’s track program just a week ago was 18th in the country. We have Andrew Riley in men’s track and field, and also Ashley Spencer with the women’s program, a terrific student athlete who is only a freshman with three more years of eligibility. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t win a national championship before she’s finished at Illinois.
(Ed. note: Eight days after Mike Thomas said that, Ashley Spencer won the 400m at the NCAA Track and Field Championships.)
So you’ve been in Champaign for nine months now. I assume you’re settled in – I know it was just you and your daughter for while when you first moved. Are you enjoying the community? The restaurants?
It’s been terrific. Coach Beckman and I, on the way down here today, critiqued every restaurant in Champaign. Fast food, whatever, it didn’t matter. We covered all the bases. But Champaign has been great. It’s all been good.
I was with my daughter for a month or so – I think she was thankful that her mom showed up in mid-September. But it’s been good. It’s a great place to be, and we have great people that support our programs.