Mike Thomas deserves credit for accomplishments amid struggles

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Mike Thomas deserves credit for accomplishments amid struggles

Illinois' athletic director Mike Thomas is recognized during the game against Miami at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28, 2013. The Illini won 50-14. Thomas' response to Simon Cvijanovic's Twitter

Illinois' athletic director Mike Thomas is recognized during the game against Miami at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28, 2013. The Illini won 50-14. Thomas' response to Simon Cvijanovic's Twitter "attack" of Tim Beckman can be found here.

Illinois' athletic director Mike Thomas is recognized during the game against Miami at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28, 2013. The Illini won 50-14. Thomas' response to Simon Cvijanovic's Twitter "attack" of Tim Beckman can be found here.

Illinois' athletic director Mike Thomas is recognized during the game against Miami at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28, 2013. The Illini won 50-14. Thomas' response to Simon Cvijanovic's Twitter "attack" of Tim Beckman can be found here.

By Alex Roux

In the world of sports, when programs struggle, the blame inevitably rises to the top.

Illinois athletics has been in a transition phase over the last several years with (relatively) new athletic director Mike Thomas firing and hiring three coaches at the beginning of his tenure. When Thomas sent Bruce Weber, Ron Zook and Jolette Law packing in 2011-12, he effectively latched his public perception as well as his job security to the performance of his three new hires: John Groce, Tim Beckman and Matt Bollant. The big sports make the big bucks and shape the image of Illinois athletics.

With losses in those three sports piling up over two and a half years into Thomas’ tenure, portions of the Illini fan base have voiced their disapproval of the job they perceive Thomas is doing. If you follow Illini sports as much as I do, which includes delving into online message boards as well as listening to Illinois sports talk on the radio, you know the kind of criticism I’m talking about:

“Thomas is in over his head.”

“When you hire MAC-level coaches, you get MAC-level results.”

Even though the majority of Illini fans are happy with the job John Groce has done with the men’s basketball team thus far, Thomas can’t escape the negative perception of the Tim Beckman hire as head football coach. Many Illini fans are unhappy with the recent results on the gridiron after Beckman compiled a 6-18 record in his first two seasons. Even though basketball is the most popular sport on this campus, football generates the most revenue. The correlation between the state of the football program and the size of the target on Thomas’ back is inescapable.

However, fans shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Thomas. In less than three years at Illinois, we’ve seen some of the most progressive changes in the athletic department’s history.

Most importantly, Thomas has spearheaded the much-needed $165 million renovation of State Farm Center. If the renovation is pulled off successfully without any major hitches, Thomas will have done better than his predecessor Ron Guenther. Guenther oversaw the facelift of Memorial Stadium in 2008, which successfully renovated the entire west side of the stadium but left the east side largely untouched. Promises of a horseshoe renovation went unfulfilled.

Thomas has also led the charge in the Nike re-branding effort of Illinois athletics, which will provide new gear to all 17 varsity sports and merchandise to fans. The Illini brand will also become more unified. The brand fell into somewhat of a hodgepodge under Guenther, with no dominant logo or theme taking shape after the departure of the Chief. Set to unveil on April 16, the re-brand could very well be a defining project for Thomas if received well by the public.

Other accomplishments under the Thomas era include introducing the “Our State, Our Team” campaign, electronic ticketing at football and basketball games and the new $7 million scoreboard that was installed last summer at Memorial Stadium.

Of course, our sports teams need to win. If our marquee programs don’t reach a higher level soon, Thomas will ultimately take much of the blame. But he’s being aggressive with projects and fundraising. He’s well-spoken and seemingly future-minded. He’s making sure the legacy he leaves will extend beyond the win/loss column.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twiiter @aroux94.