It’s funny & alarming to read social media reports of the 2015-16 Illini Men’s basketball team. So far, nobody seems to mention the 4 to 5 missing starters. It’s mostly doom and gloom, a place that feels comfortable and familiar since the days when Bruce Weber first set the program back 50 years,
But there’s no reason to feel gloomy about this team, yet. It’s third string performed pretty well against North Dakota State, an NCAA Tournament team that famously beat Bo Ryan at Kohl a few years back.
Anyone can beat Bo Ryan at Kohl as long as they have five guys who can shoot 50% from three. Sometimes you need only a couple. Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale did it in 2010.
Dee Brown did it to Tom Izzo in 2006. When the MSU defense extended, Dee just moved closer to half court. Jamar Butler did it to Dee & Weber, also in 2006, but in Columbus. Austin Peay did it to Illinois in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, forcing Dick Vitale to stand on his head.
If the Illini had played North Florida with no three-point line, the second half would have ended in a tie. It’s a game-altering weapon. Remember the 2005 Illini? They made a lot of threes.
Yesterday in Springfield, North Dakota State had two guys who went off from deep, Paul Miller and Malik Clements. Horrified Illini fans envisioned the program’s first-ever 0-3 start, and a ten win season.
But it wasn’t enough. They got tired. Probably because they’d traveled from a game at Davis, California on Friday.
The Illini men lost a season opener for the first time this century. Don’t worry about it. It just doesn’t matter.
Illinois found its on-court leader Friday night. And then it lost him. Worry about that, until a favorable prognosis is announced.
“AJ, get the fuck in the game” yelled Jaylon Tate to freshman Aaron Jordan, as the latter’s defensive lapses allowed North Florida to grab an early lead.
Tate is a beloved character on the team. Light-hearted, smart and wickedly funny. But he’s not a jokester about execution. Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands spent much of Friday out-of-position on defense. That’s not the reason Illinois lost. It was freshmen being freshmen. In this case, the freshmen played their first game versus an NCAA tournament team of upperclassmen who played the game of their lives.
On the drive to Springfield last week, Matt Campbell asked me to describe Mike Thorne’s game. Like a lot of Illini fans, he’s stopped paying year-round attention.
“He’ll shoot about 53% from the floor this year,” I told him. “He’ll miss 47% of his 2-to-3 footers, so I think a lot of fans will find it maddening to watch him, because he’ll miss so many bunnies, and he refuses to use the backboard. But he’s got really quick feet.”
On Friday, “Big Bo” connected on 52% of his bunnies, and 3-of-8 free throws. This will be your constant for the 2015-16 season. Everything else is subject to change.
John Groce scheduled this season as a precisely tuned entreaty to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. He knew North Florida, North Dakota State and Chattanooga would boost his team’s RPI.
He didn’t know he’d be starting freshmen, and giving significant minutes to a walk-on.
“I’m not gonna sit here and tell ya that I thought Abrams, Black, Nunn … and Jaylon Tate would play half the game. I’d be lying if I said that to you.”
If those guys were all available, this team would still be behind Northern Florida. The Ospreys have chemistry. They’ve been together for a while. The Illini are all newcomers. Malcolm Hill is a newcomer to everyone he’s playing with (now that Jaylon Tate is gone).
This Illini team needs time to assimilate team defense. “Man-to-man” principles don’t apply in the John Groce era (nor Bruce Weber before him). It’s now about helping & hedging in the Pack-Line. Or it’s two-three zone. They’re both zone defenses, in traditional terms. And most Illini newcomers (and most Illini are newcomers) don’t get it yet.
The Ospreys hit 52% from three. Their 6’8″ shooting guard/slasher hit 7-of-8 from deep. You can’t blame yourself for that kind of performance.
When Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale pulled a similar stunt on Bo Ryan, at Kohl in 2010, Wisconsin’s coaching legend was unruffled and unconcerned. There’s nothing you can do when a team drops threes from that distance, and that rate. (I write about this all the time, often referencing Illini anomalies versus Bo. Dee Champaign 2005, McBride 2006 and Jack @ Kohl 2005 are the other examples.)
You can blame yourself for Dallas Moore’s continual forays into the paint. The Illini haven’t figured out help defense. There was no Sam McLaurin to shift into Victor Oladipo’s path to the basket. Maverick Morgan performed this role in the second half, but the game was already out of reach.
Groce gets a pass on all of this. Recruiting is not on the level we were promised. But this spate of injuries is unprecedented. If memory serves, you’ll know this author doesn’t go easy on coaches who deserve criticism.
Paul Kowalczyk acquitted himself better than Barbara Wilson in the November 9 press conference that announced Mike Thomas’s ouster.
He seemed nervous, he seemed humble, he expressed uncertainty. In other words, he was a real human.
Kowalczyk didn’t PR his way through his introductory press conference. He contemplated questions, was sometimes confused by them (and said so), and answered genuinely, to the best of his knowledge.
He stuck around for further interviews following his formal press conference. Asked about student-athlete health and welfare, his portfolio since August 8, he agreed that he was up to speed on all aspects of the topic. But he also admitted ignorance on some issues, and he said so in an intriguingly cloak & dagger fashion:
“There are some things I don’t know about, but that was Mike being smart about being close to the vest, trying to protect staff and others around him.”
Timothy Killeen refused press inquiries on the topic.
It’s a brilliant move by Killeen to lay all responsibility on Wilson, who says she doesn’t want the chancellor job on a permanent basis. Whatever the reaction, whatever the fallout, he’s absolved of blame simply because no one can say what position he took re: Mike Thomas. You can write “Killeen fired Mike Thomas” but you can’t link to an authoritative source. There’s no audio or video clip.
Here’s the thrust of the situation. Barbara Wilson performed a hatchet job deemed necessary by the administration. She’ll soon fade into history, and a new chancellor with no record of malfeasance/accomplishment will take her place.
Seventeen hours before the announcement of Mike Thomas’s firing, and four days after the decision was made, I introduced myself to Timothy Killeen. He attended the UIUC-UIS exhibition in Springfield. He wore a Prairie Stars golf shirt. I recognized that display as a fun political maneuver, standing up for the little brother. I wanted to ask Killeen about basketball, nothing pressing. He was immediately evasive. Maybe he thought I knew something. He certainly knew something.
WHY MIKE THOMAS GOT FIRED
Long-time donors were pissed because the Thomas administration un-grandfathered them from premium basketball seating. Think of the elderly couple that leaves a 15¢ tip at the diner. They think it’s pretty good money. When they were kids, it could buy a meal.
The level of donations from longtime Illini supporters = the stagnant results in the revenue sports. There’s a direct, causal relationship. It’s also the reason the Assembly Hall waited so long for an upgrade. (There’s no link for that claim either. Ron Guenther was a closed door to media not named Loren Tate. )
The re-seating angered everyone who held season tickets in A & B Sections. For each year they’d been season ticket holders, each of these fans moved closer to the court (when another’s death or non-renewal opened a spot). For a considerable number of people, this annual commitment began decades ago.
All that grandfathering disappeared with the new regime. It had to.
A conversation with Associate AD Rick Darnell, in the early stages of the renovation campaign, found him rolling his eyes after a day of taking angry phone calls, and trying to reason with disgruntled cheapskates. I don’t remember if he used the word “unsustainable,” but the message was distinct. You just can’t give away the best seats in the house for monies equaling the face-value of tickets. It doesn’t pay the bills.
I recall a conversation with one of those disgruntled donors. Former U of I trustee Dave Dorris, a Blagojevich appointee, attended something close to 400 straight Illini basketball games, wherever they occurred (including Hawai’i) before skipping all of last season.
At a Madison BBQ joint, prior to the 2014 game at Wisconsin, he said he’d been offered something along the lines of The Dorris Family Outdoor Smoking Area & Ceremonial Ashtray in exchange for a donation of $200,000.
Dorris is not a cheapskate. But the people who find themselves honored at halftime of basketball games, since Mike Thomas took over the DIA, were giving ten times that amount.
John Giuliani gave $5 million, and his prize is a private club within the SFC.
Last year, Bob Assmussen reported that Darnell and Thomas were discussing the sale of naming rights to the SFC court. It’s hard to imagine a price tag under $10 million for that amount of advertising. After all, “State Farm Center” is merely mentioned by TV presenters. The court is visible throughout each home game, even with the volume muted.
Obviously that major gift never developed. In an effort to appease all those longtime, disgruntled fans, the Thomas administration shifted gears, announcing Lou Henson Court four days before firing Tim Beckman.
Unseen on campus for a year, Dave Dorris showed up to honor Lou.
If Ron Guenther had stayed on at Illinois, he’d have had two choices.
Irritate all those same longtime donors
Not renovate the Assembly Hall
You can argue that renovation plans were already underway when Mike Thomas took over. But where was the money coming from? The football stadium still isn’t finished. Marquee sports programs pay their head (and perhaps more importantly, assistant) coaches double, or more, than Illinois.
By leaving Illinois, Guenther allowed important work to go forward, and didn’t have to be the bad guy.
If Mike Thomas hadn’t hired Tim Beckman, perhaps he’d have survived donor wrath. His firing will remain a riddle, and a head-shaker, barring further revelations.
Now, a little bit more about that Franczek Radelet investigation and its final report. First some medical stuff, then the part about Bill Cubit.
Page 37-38 of the report features an unnerving contrast in the protocol of team doctors.
Two team physicians reported that, if their “not safe to play” decision to hold a player out of football participation is based upon a player’s lack of confidence, they do not share that reason with coaches, saying only that the player is “out” or “not cleared” to play. In their view, it is a poor practice to share with coaches that their medical opinion, in part, is based on a player’s perspective because the coaches want players to return and could seek to change the player’s mind. These physicians believe that players should not be subjected to such pressure and, to encourage candid communication with sports medicine personnel, the players are better served by doctors not sharing such information with coaches.
Another team physician reported, however, that, in situations where his “not clear to play” decision was based on a student-athlete’s lack of confidence, he routinely shared that information with Coach Beckman. That team physician also reported that Coach Beckman would say he planned to speak to the player.
All players who were interviewed and asked about this issue strongly preferred that physicians not share such information with coaches. One player reported that when Beckman was told that the player expressed concern to a physician about whether he was fit to play, Coach Beckman told the player that the player would not get to decide whether to play.
All student-athletes sign a HIPAA waiver, which allows medical staff to discuss individuals’ medical condition (HIPAA provides a federally protected privacy right.)
The waiver is necessary. Otherwise, coaches, trainers and doctors simply wouldn’t be able to communicate about an individual’s condition.
But it’s alarming that one team physician didn’t foresee the potential for mischief & psychological abuse inherent in sharing the above information with a man as notoriously stupid, and demonstrably skeptical of medical sciences, as Tim Beckman.
Later in page 38, Bill Cubit is the subject of one particular health & welfare inquiry. Franczek Radelet concludes Cubit did nothing wrong.
For example, one former player reported that Bill Cubit (Offensive Coordinator and now Interim Head Coach) attempted to convince him to stop taking anti-anxiety medication to improve his football performance just prior to the 2014 season. Cubit explained that the player had complained about stomach issues and other impediments to his performance during Camp Rantoul, which the player believed stemmed from his medication. Because one of Cubit’s family members had suffered from similar issues, he spoke privately with the player about the sensitive subject to share that experience. Cubit informed the player that Cubit’s family member had decided to stop taking the medication and experienced significant improvement, but he told the player it was entirely up to him to decide how to proceed. The former player perceived this as coaching pressure. Another player who was a teammate with the reporting player knew about the conversation and believed that the reporting player misinterpreted Cubit’s statements, which he interpreted as a supportive gesture. There is no indication that Coach Cubit said anything else inappropriate to the reporting player or evidence that he ever made inappropriate comments or pressured other players about injury issues. The lack of concerns raised by other players lends further credence to Cubit’s account, which we find credible.
The University of Illinois is lying to you, the public toward whom federal law requires transparency; or it chose to pay Mike Thomas $2.5 million to not do the job he was good at doing.
Those are your choices. There are no alternatives.
After reading the report from Franczek Radelet, I’ve concluded the answer is #2. The University of Illinois just likes firing people, which should be obvious at this point.
Monday, 10:53 am.
On the Memorial Stadium elevator, I rode with one guy. He’s the DIA staffer responsible for feeding all the media who showed for the regularly scheduled Bill Cubit presser, and the WAY more than usual number of people who came to hear Barbara Wilson not answer questions about Mike Thomas’s firing.
Just the two of us, but the freight elevator was packed because of all the stainless steel, a seven-foot-tall mobile steam-table and a condiments gurney. Pulled chicken, salsa, sour cream, chopped romaine, diced tomatoes, flour tortillas, grated Queso blanco, refried beans, Spanish rice.
“Do you think you’re in danger of getting fired?” I asked the civil servant.
“Why.” he responded. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I agree,” I told him. “But that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”
Richard Herman , Joseph White, Heidi Hurd, Stan Ikenberry, Mike Hogan, Bob Easter, Phyllis Wise, Stephen Salaita, Paul Pless, Ilesanmi Adesida, Bruce Smith, Barb Wilson, Timothy Killeen.
The names don’t matter. The lack of continuity matters. Stability matters. `Who’s running the University of Illinois? If you blink, you’ll miss it. No one’s job is safe here.
If governor Bruce Rauner follows the example of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, job insecurity should only increase.
Barbara Wilson was not a complete disaster as a communicator/ax wielder. Like a lot of information gatekeepers, she has a degree in journalism and a PhD cum career in “communication” which may someday be conclusively defined. (Her specialty is social and psychological effects of media on children.)
I asked her a deceptively softballish question. It sounded hardballish. “What would you say to reassure the community, overall, that the university administration is not in complete disarray.”
She nailed the answer. See it in this video at the seven minute mark.
If you’re at work, I’ll give you the gist of it. She said the university is the classrooms, the labs, the studios. It’s not Swanlund (the administrative offices building). Major PR win for the interim chancellor in that response.
She was somewhat responsive, and somewhat combative, toward WCIA reporter Anna Carrera, in a back-and-forth about the millions of dollars U of I will be billed by Franczek Radelet (at the 4:30 mark, above).
I hesitate to describe Wilson as condescending toward Carrera. On the other hand, Wilson certainly condescended to News-Gazette reporter Matt Daniels, who asked the simplest and perhaps most important question of the conference (14:35, above).
“I think you’ve read the reports, you know what the distractions are” she non-responded to his root question, what are the distractions? In essence, why was Mike Thomas fired if he did nothing wrong?
“I think you know” she said of a 1200 page report, publicized two hours earlier.
(In her defense, Wilson was frustrated by a reporter’s smartphone, which forced her to read her prepared statement while her own voice looped back at her from the lectern. That’s the kind of unexpected annoyance that can completely rattle an otherwise composed, prepared speaker. I would certainly argue that her entire presentation, and her mood, was affected by this single annoyance.)
As it turns out, the football report is really 58 pages long, with a whole lotta supporting materials, redacted where interesting, totaling 664 pages. The word “distractions” appears twice, because it’s part of a document regarding concussion management, and that document is published twice in the report. The second iteration comes in the women’s basketball half of the report, which found no improprieties.
Nowhere does the report suggest that Mike Thomas did something unscrupulous, unprofessional, or bad. Not once.
Thus, we can conclude that Wilson was telling the truth, and perhaps not even fudging or evading. Mike Thomas did a great job, just like she said. And then he was fired.
Franczek Radelet’s assessment of DIA leadership starts at the end of page 39, and finishes at the bottom of page 42. That portion is pasted below.
In essence, DIA oversight of football trainer concerns/revolving door/malfeasance was insufficient. The prominent names are Paul Schmidt and Jason Lener.
Schmidt had titular oversight of everything sports medicine-related, because his title was “Head of Sports Medicine.” Lener had the day-to-day responsibility for overseeing the football program, including player health and welfare.
The report says Thomas removed Schmidt and Lener from their oversight positions, assigning Paul Kowalczyk to Lener’s duties twenty days before Tim Beckman was fired.
Franczek Radelet seems to exonerate Lener, by saying he didn’t think the trainer stuff was a big deal. That’s in bold, below.
Schmidt is the trainer for men’s basketball. The fact that he was the “Head of Sports Medicine” is an anomaly of seniority, rising through the ranks of civil service. It’s unreasonable to expect him to pick fights with hostile/aggressive football personnel, especially because he spends his days in the bowels of Ubben, taping ankles and injecting insulin into Mike Thorne.
Franczek Radelet exonerates Schmidt by saying he reported to Lener.
Here’s the full text of Franczek Radelet’s report re: administrative culpability. Tomorrow, analysis of the Paul Kowalczyk appointment, some troubling aspects of the Beckman investigation, and the real reason Mike Thomas was fired.
4. Administrative Oversight
We also considered the role that DIA administrative personnel played, if any, in allowing the violations of sports medicine protocols under Coach Beckman’s leadership to persist over a three-year period. As explained above, since Coach Beckman’s arrival, physicians, several Head Football Athletic Trainers, and the Director of Sports Medicine have raised concerns on various occasions about Coach Beckman’s injury management to people within DIA responsible for oversight of the Football Program. Combined with Head Football Athletic Trainer turnover, the number of reports of concerns from multiple people, particularly the extent of problems reported by team physicians, calls into question the sufficiency of the administrative oversight of the sports medicine program as it pertains to the Football Program. Details of our findings in this regard are described below, initially focusing on issues that arose during 2012 and 2013 and concluding with an overview of ongoing areas of concern.
2012 Injury Management Concerns. The first signs of potential problems with Coach Beckman’s injury management approach were the quick departures of two successive Head Football Athletic Trainers in March and May of 2012 (Nick Richey and Chris Brown, respectively). Each departure was attributed to personal career considerations, but the two departures in quick succession could have raised a broader concern. As nearly all witnesses explained (athletic trainers, doctors, administrators, and players), continuity within the athletic training staff is important because of the prominence of injuries in football and the need for trust between players and athletic trainers to encourage full disclosure of information. We conclude that, at least, the two Head Football Athletic Trainer departures within Coach Beckman’s first several months at the University were sufficient to lead DIA administrators to pay closer attention to sports medicine related issues and to respond diligently to any future concerns voiced by sports medicine personnel.
The third Head Football Athletic Trainer in 2012, Scott Brooks, reported significant concerns with Coach Beckman’s approach to injury management decisions within his first several months in the position and when he resigned in December 2012. These concerns were shared with Director of Sports Medicine, Paul Schmidt, and Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director, Jason Lener. Brooks reported candidly to Schmidt and generally to Lener, when he resigned, that he was not comfortable with the negative environment and pressure imposed by Coach Beckman. Schmidt confirmed Brooks’ comments, while Lener reported that he knew only of difficulty that Brooks had getting along with other athletic trainers and coaches. This third Head Football Athletic Trainer departure created more reason to increase administrative oversight, yet no team physician, athletic trainer, or administrator (Lener or Schmidt) recalls discussing any of these issues with Athletic Director Mike Thomas.
2013 Injury Management Concerns. The approach of Brooks’ successor as Head Football Athletic Trainer, Toby Harkins, caused team physicians to quickly begin sharing different and more troubling concerns with DIA administrative personnel. The issues included Harkins’ alignment with Coach Beckman, his poor judgment, and his failure to follow team physician directives. In multiple meetings and disciplinary notices, physicians, Schmidt, and Lener sought to address Harkins’ failure to meet one of the fundamental obligations of the lead athletic trainer role: communicating with doctors to facilitate their role as the “final authority” on injury management and clearance-to-play decisions. Despite acknowledging that he was aware of the concerns expressed by sports medicine personnel, Lener still described Harkins as “good at his trade” because Coach Beckman was pleased with his work. Lener also indicated that the concerns about Harkins that he recalls sharing with Athletic Director Mike Thomas were the existence of co-worker difficulties and issues related to Harkins becoming licensed as a trainer in Illinois. Similarly, Thomas reported only knowing about those two issues until our interviews.
We find that, although DIA administration attempted to address problems created by Harkins’ alignment with Coach Beckman during 2013 and eventually removed him as Head Football Athletic Trainer just before the 2013 season began, the level of oversight and attentiveness was insufficient to completely and promptly protect student-athlete welfare.
Ongoing Injury Management Concerns. After Harkins was removed and Naas became the Head Football Athletic Trainer, Naas reported that no one (Schmidt, Lener, or Thomas) checked with him regularly or asked in any meaningful way how things were going as he performed the head athletic trainer role over the next two years. Naas confirmed that, while injury management issues subsided to some degree during this period, Coach Beckman still challenged players who left practice for medical treatment and pressured all injured players to participate in the 2014 spring game (with his comments just prior to spring break). No one overseeing sports medicine or within DIA administration seems to have learned about these concerns until our investigation. We find that the lack of increased administrative review of injury management issues within the Football Program was a managerial oversight and that DIA staff could have done more to learn about the sports medicine function and offer support.*
*In contrast, Faculty Representative Wheeler reported that he made a point of spending more time at football practices during 2014 because the team had not performed well during Coach Beckman’s first two seasons, which Faculty Representative Wheeler thought could lead to increased coach pressure on players generally during the 2014 season.
Moreover, all football players, coaches, athletic trainers, and medical personnel reported uncertainty regarding the complaint process for students concerned about their medical management. Even one of the Faculty Representatives reported uncertainty about the scope of his role and authority to address complaints. This lack of a clear complaint process regarding injury management concerns left one player to bring concerns to the University’s Dean of Students. The Dean of Students accepted the complaint, but was unable to immediately respond due to a lack of clarity in reporting lines and investigative authority. Further, the Dean of Students Office lacks familiarity or expertise in the standards and best practices applicable to the medical care of student-athletes. In sum, no complaint process either within DIA or externally within the University exists specifically for processing student-athlete complaints about medical management.
Mike Thomas’ Oversight of Sports Medicine Issues. Athletic Director Mike Thomas delegated responsibility for sports medicine issues to Lener and described his role with these issues as “setting the tone” for others to follow, focusing on student-athlete welfare, and helping with issues as they were brought to his attention. His management style involves weekly one-onone meetings with Lener as well as weekly meetings with all of his executive senior staff within DIA administration. He encourages the staff to share any issues and reported that they do so regularly. Thomas also makes a point of informally checking in with personnel within DIA administration to offer opportunities for them to seek his advice or share information.
With respect to sports medicine issues within the Football Program, based on all of the information gathered during our investigation, we conclude that Thomas never received any direct report from a player, doctor, athletic trainer, or DIA staff member of concerns regarding inappropriate pressure on student-athletes or interference with sports medicine personnel rendering judgments about injury management. Both Lener and Thomas report that Lener did not share such concerns with Thomas beyond information regarding high turnover and athletic training personnel “not getting along.” Schmidt also reported discussing problems that developed in 2012 and 2013 only with Lener. We find it credible that Lener and Schmidt did not share more with Thomas because (1) Lener did not seem to view the issues raised by athletic trainers and doctors as more than problems between co-workers and (2) Schmidt followed a chain-of-command approach and expected that Lener would pass along information to Thomas as he saw fit.
Upon learning of the issues described above regarding sports medicine difficulties under Coach Beckman’s leadership, Thomas was shocked and disappointed by their scale. He felt that Coach Beckman’s pattern of communication demonstrated a disregard for student-athlete welfare in many respects and was surprised by the scope of his efforts to discourage reporting and push players to play through injuries. When shown evidence of the doctors’ ongoing concerns about Harkins, Thomas described Harkins’ actions as failing to prioritize student-athlete welfare. In addition, senior administrative staff could have gone to greater lengths to keep Thomas informed about those issues. Thomas described the breakdown in communications to him from Lener and Schmidt as unexplainable, especially after the problems persisted for several months after they were informed.
Since learning of these issues, Thomas has taken steps to adjust DIA administrative personnel to avoid recurrence in the future. Oversight of sports medicine has been assigned to Paul Kowalczyk, Senior Associate Athletics Director. Thomas is in the process of eliminating the Director of Sports Medicine role and will replace it with a more senior position that Thomas believes will provide significantly more oversight and protection for student-athletes. Thomas has also implemented additional changes for the sports medicine function with respect to the Football Program that are described in detail below at pages 55 to 58.
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