Athletic Director Thomas left running

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Following Friday’s press conference about Tim Beckman’s dismissal, Mike Thomas seemed frozen in time. For a split second he looked like a painter admiring his model, Bill Cubit, at the lectern.

Then he was gone.

Just seconds after Cubit finished speaking, Thomas fled the upper level of Memorial Stadium, leaving his interim head coach and five football players to discuss his decision to fire Beckman.

Cubit seemed almost jovial, excited to start his second stint as a head coach at a Division I program. He brushed off talk of investigations and spoke of his love for Illinois: the players, the fans, the alumni and the media.

The players seemed more dazed and confused than their new head coach, but served up a valiant portion of “We’ve got this.” The usual faces — Monheim, Karras, Ferguson and Lunt — stood in fierce defense of Cubit and mostly declined to talk about anything beyond next week’s season opener against Kent State.

But Thomas was gone. And more and more that seems to be the inevitable in Champaign. Far from a man of the people, Thomas is well-known as a savvy business-first athletic director who fundraises like a mad man. He has overseen expensive and expansive projects to better the Illini, both on the field and off.

But maybe that hallway through which he raced away is a reflection of the likelihood that he knows his days here are numbered — which they definitely are, by the way — and that he knows his popularity is waning.

Tim Beckman is a dope, and the highest paid public employee in the state. There’s no way around how stupid this story is. The investigation of mistreatment isn’t even over and Thomas already feels like Beckman needs to go.

By most accounts, he deserved to be fired. 

Bill Cubit seems cut from a different cloth than Beckman.

Is he Urban Meyer? Maybe not. But this football team’s on-field product is unlikely to negatively change. If anything, the players might be even more motivated than they were under Beckman.

This is an underdog team now more than ever. And Thomas made them that way.

Thomas answered the media’s questions during his portion of the press conference. He wasn’t necessarily running away from reporters, but he certainly wasn’t sticking around to schmooze.

More and more, Thomas seems to be isolating himself. He’s becoming a human island, and whether it’s because of bad luck or incompetence or both, he just isn’t winning anyone over these days. Ironically, this football team is now tighter than ever — but Thomas has never seemed more disconnected from the student-athletes than he did on Friday.

When asked why he didn’t know about Beckman’s misbehavior — he said he was “disgusted” by the preliminary Franczek Radelet report — he detailed the size and scope of the athletic department. He indirectly blamed his lack of knowledge on how big Illinois is.

That’s the kind of thing a freshman says about feeling homesick. That’s not an answer I want from my school’s athletic director about allegations of player mistreatment.

And for better or worse, Beckman was a great scapegoat for Thomas. He was always making mistakes, but in some ways, he provided cover for his athletic director. Cubit’s not likely to be that kind of coach.

In those seconds following the press conference, perhaps Thomas revealed his true character: He’s running for his life.

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