Investigations and lawsuits shake up Illinois athletic department

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

The influence of social media and players’ willingness to speak up helped cause changes in the Illinois athletic department during the fall semester.

A series of tweets sent out on Mother’s Day by former football player Simon Cvijanovic and additional reports of allegations of player abuse in the women’s basketball program ultimately resulted with the firing of the University’s athletic director Mike Thomas, head football coach Tim Beckman and assistant women’s basketball coach Matt Divilbiss.

Cvijanovic’s tweets prompted former Chancellor Phyllis Wise — who resigned in August — to launch an investigation into the accusations made by the former offensive lineman. Thomas stood by Beckman after the accusations were made, which might have sunk the former athletic director.

Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet conducted the investigation for much of the summerRB. Beckman was expected to coach the team at the start of the season until Thomas received the preliminary results of the investigation and fired Beckman on Aug. 28, a week before the start of the season. Thomas cited that Beckman was found guilty of player mistreatment and scholarship mistreatment, forcing Thomas to fire the coach before the release of the full reportRB.

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was named the interim head coach after Beckman’s firing. Cubit provided calm and stability for much of the season until the full report was released on Nov. 9. The investigation revealed the extent of Beckman’s mistreatment of the player, including his lack of belief in hamstring injuries. No other coach on the staff was found guilty of player mistreatment.

Although the report said Thomas did not show any prior knowledge of the wrongdoing by Beckman, Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson announced that the former athletic director would be fired for all the negative light on the athletic department during the past year.

While there was change in the football program, some spring cleaning was about to take place in the women’s basketball program. Former players accused head coach Matt Bollant and Divilbiss of player mistreatment, including mistreatment based on race. Wise announced that the University would conduct a separate investigation, this time by the law firm of Pugh, Jones and JohnsonRB.

Bollant fired Divilbiss before the release of the investigation, citing that it was in the best interest of both parties to move on.

The final report was released on July 31 and found no wrongdoing by anyone on the coaching staff. The report suggested that the University could clarify the conduct expected for its coaches.

While the investigations might be over, the athletic department still faces controversy. Paul Kowalczyk was named the interim athletic director when Thomas was firedRB. Kowalczyk and the rest of University leadership received a mixed reaction from the Illini fan base when they announced just prior to the season finale that Cubit would receive a two-year extension.

Wilson announced the formation of an eight-person search committee on Dec. 4, which will make recommendations to Wilson. The Board of Trustees will have to approve whomever Wilson recommends, and that decision is likely to be made at the board’s meeting in January.

The University also faces lawsuits from seven former women’s basketball players and a soccer lawsuit. Casey Conine filed a lawsuit in Champaign County in June claiming she was cleared to play in October 2014 after suffering a third concussionRB.

Beckman has mentioned he is considering suing the University for wrongful termination.

While change is taking place at the University, the next athletic director will have a lot on his or her plate once he or she takes the job.

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