A change in culture: Mike Thomas and where Illinois athletics goes from here

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Mike Thomas was inevitably going to get fired.

It was simply a matter of when, not if. Even despite Thomas’ relative innocence in relation to the abusive actions of Tim Beckman — as described in Franczek Radelet’s report — interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson dismissed him from the University. She cited the DIA’s need for a “change in leadership.”

How about a change in culture? I don’t mean paying lip service to a change in culture but actually changing the way administrators, coaches and student-athletes approach Illinois sports.

The University will eventually hire a head football coach and athletic director who’ll bring a new era of leadership to a school with a lot of “interims” in important positions right now.

But even if they hire “the right man/woman for the job” the University might still totally miss the point here.

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The point is that for the success of the athletic department, the administrators must look to the student-athletes — not donors, coaches or fans — for direction.

The University owes an apology to Simon Cvijanovic, Nick North and many of the players that came out with abuse allegations directed at Beckman in the spring. The University’s direct representative, its athletic director, stood behind its coach, rather than supporting the young adults who were claiming physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a man twice their age.

The University owes an apology to the current Illini football players — especially the seniors — who have had to endure this debacle during their season and who were hung out to dry on social media in the spring, supporting a coach who they didn’t know was really a horrible person.

Wilson said Thomas didn’t do anything wrong but that the athletics issues had become “a distraction.” Don’t be confused by that, Thomas was a scapegoat, plain and simple. Both he and Wilson seem to understand that someone needed to take the fall for what happened in the last six months.

So going forward, get rid of the “good old boy culture” that thrives at Illinois. It’s racist, sexist and ignorant. Who cares if you can raise a lot of money and schmooze with the big boosters? Not the kids on the field.

Don’t hire another coach who is going to call his players “pussies” and “bitches.” Don’t hire trainers that won’t support student-athletes’ mental and physical health.

Maybe Bill Cubit is the guy. He was cleared of any and all wrongdoing in the Franczek Radelet investigation. He nearly choked up during Monday’s press conference when he announced that Jihad Ward had been selected for the Senior Bowl.

But it doesn’t matter who the next head coach is and who the next athletic director is, they better listen to their players. The resignation of the president of the University of Missouri is a pretty clear indication that student-athletes have a voice, and when it is exercised, it can be a powerful tool for good and for bad.

So remember where you went wrong, University administration. It doesn’t behoove the University to shunt its student-athletes to the side in favor of the guys making $1.5 million a year and getting $2.5 million in a contract buyout.

On Monday, Cubit was the one who said it best — regardless of his association with Illinois going forward.

“If we can be good people, golly … We have a chance.”

Peter is a junior in Media.?

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