Facing the past: Thomas’ old program comes to town as favorites

Mike Thomas knew he would be in Champaign.

Dating all the way back to March 2009, Thomas, then the athletic director at Cincinnati, was planning his trip to the University of Illinois. The Bearcats and Illini had just announced the scheduling of a home-and-home football series with Cincinnati hosting in 2009, and Illinois earning a home contest in 2013.

What he didn’t know four years ago is that he would be on the other side of the second contest, donning Illini orange and blue instead of Bearcat black and red.

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Thomas was hired at Cincinnati on Oct. 20, 2005, to head a program that was in a weak power conference for football and a fringe squad in the powerhouse of Big East basketball.

The Bearcats spent 2006 with Mark Dantonio as head coach and held a respectable 7-5 record; however, Dantonio left for Michigan State before the team’s bowl game, leaving a void on the football staff.

Thomas wasted no time and hired a head coach from Central Michigan with a mediocre 19-16 record over three seasons: Brian Kelly. Kelly coached the team to a 27-24 victory in the Motor City Bowl, despite being with the team for just over a month.

“I was only with him a year, but Mark (Dantonio) laid a great foundation in place,” Thomas said. “When Brian came in, he not only maintained it, he elevated it.”

Kelly and the Bearcats exploded onto the national scene right from the first game. Cincinnati notched three consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, highlighted by the 2009 campaign that saw the team win its first 12 games en route to a Sugar Bowl berth.

Although the football team was a winner right away, the Cincinnati men’s basketball program was in disarray. Incumbent head coach Bob Huggins left just before the 2005 season and the Bearcats spent the whole season with an interim head coach.

With low expectations in a loaded Big East, Mick Cronin was hired to take over at his alma mater as head coach. Although it took a while to see success, the Bearcats men’s basketball team improved its win total each season from 2007-11 and has made three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Even with both the “big” programs humming at Cincinnati, Thomas decided it was time to make a change in 2011, when he was brought into Illinois as the athletic director to replace Ron Gunther.  

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When Thomas arrived in Champaign in August 2011, the program was different, though the situation wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In one corner, he had a football coach who had seen ups and downs, but was respected in the profession. The men’s basketball coach was under fire and fans increasingly demanded a change.

As he had done before, Thomas wasted no time in establishing his own coaches in major sports. Football head coach Ron Zook was fired after the 2011 season despite three bowl appearances in five years, including a trip to the Rose Bowl — the Illini’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1984.

“You want to feel like you’re a top-25 team and to have a chance to compete for divisional championships and Big Ten championships,” Thomas said. “When that happens, all the other things fall into place. You’re not concerned about other things, things like selling tickets. We do a lot of things with marketing and in-game experience, we talk a lot about that, but at the end of the day, what brings people to Memorial Stadium is winning football games.”

With Zook gone, Thomas brought in Toledo head coach Tim Beckman to take over the program, again drawing from the MAC coaching ranks to lead his program. While Beckman and the Illini struggled through a 2-10 campaign in 2012, the second-year head coach picked up important commitments from transfers Wes Lunt, Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.

On the hard court, Illini fans grew increasingly impatient with head coach Bruce Weber’s inability to recruit Chicago and his frantic antics on the sideline led to subpar seasons. Weber was fired after missing the NCAA tournament with a 17-15 record.

The Illinois coaching search was rumored to have multiple candidates, but eventually selected Ohio’s John Groce to fill the position — a move that already spawned an NCAA tournament appearance and a top-20 recruiting class in 2013.

“To be successful, you have to have two things. You have to have commitment and you have to have capacity,” Thomas said. “In this department, I sure hope our coaches and administrators and staff are committed, but you need commitment from those up above you, otherwise it can short circuit some things.”

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Now, in his third year at Illinois, Thomas comes full circle when Cincinnati visits Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Though more than half the team was brought in since his departure and the Bearcats are led by a new coach, it’s still easy to see the mark Thomas left on the Cincinnati program.

The Bearcats stumbled to a 4-7 record in 2005 — the team’s inaugural voyage in the Big East — but won at least eight games in five of the six seasons that Thomas spent in Cincinnati.

“Football is difficult from a standpoint that you’re dealing with 105 kids,” Thomas said. “You’re not dealing with 15 basketball players. I’ve said this before, but turning around a basketball team is turning around a speedboat, while turning around football is an aircraft carrier.”

For the Bearcats, they’ve already experienced what effective leadership at the top of the chain can do to a sport, rolling into Champaign as 7.5-point favorites; meanwhile the home underdogs are hoping that Thomas is the right man to direct the aircraft carrier.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.