Categories
Illini basketball

Some blew it, some wouldn’t blow

Somehow, this writer has covered Illini basketball for nine years without seeing a game in the Tarheel state. South Carolina? Yes. Georgia? Multiple times. Oklahoma, Texas, Washington (state and district)? Yep.

Even Hawai’i and Quebec.

But never North Carolina, ’til Tuesday.

 

And boy what a disappointment it was. The game was okay I guess. But it was just depressing to visit the college basketball state and find such a lackluster crowd.

The Deacons attempted to revive their faithful by shooting catalytically unconverted toxins at the opposing bench, but even that couldn’t wake the Wake.

Lawrence Joel Coliseum announced a crowd of 5,782. Let’s hope that many people paid, then went to bed early.  But that would be more than a third of capacity, and there’s no way it was more than a quarter full.

I don’t think all of Wake’s fans had to get up bright and early to manufacture cigarettes. I think they’ve given up on their program. Remember when Wake fired Dino Gaudio after consecutive trips to the tourney? Remember when they then hired a charmless tactician who’d just suffered three consecutive losing seasons? Of course you don’t. But if you lived in Winston-Salem, it would burn in your memory.

Jeff Bzdelik’s head coaching record

If you want to know what an utterly destroyed basketball program looks like …

Everyone noticed the foul discrepancy. Brad Underwood took all the fun out of the postgame by praising the officiating crew as one of the best in the business. That observation effectively closed the door on the topic. We didn’t know what he’d told the radio crew moments earlier. It was a lot different.

Brian Dorsey has officiated a lot of Illini games. I think I recall Tim Nestor’s name, but maybe I’m just thinking of the long-eared Christmas donkey. Ron Groover has never worked an Illini game that I can recall.

The 31-to-14 advantage in free-throw attempts certainly helped the home team. But the Illini out-shot the Deacs 62-to-47 from the floor. Each and every one of those 15 extra shots missed. i.e. Illinois and Wake Forest each made 24 field goals.

The game was decided, as so often happens, by the ability to get a synthetic leather ball through a metal hoop. Whether it was missing shots, or turning the ball over 19 times before even attempting a shot, Illinois didn’t hoop the ball enough.

Wake Forest’s shots looked like this.

Illini shots also had that same guy in the frame. In fact, he often took up most of the space.

Both Josh Whitman and Paul Kowalczyk attended, along with compliance analyst Evan Taylor. This might suggest that the DIA took this game pretty seriously. “Yes we do,” said Kowalczyk.

Big Mike Thorne, recently returned to the states from Slovenia, attended. So did Mark Morris, the DOBO under John Groce.  Thorne says he’s healthy and hoping to play more basketball.

If I didn’t have photographic evidence of Adam Fletcher smiling, no one would believe it happened. I’ve certainly never seen him smile before. I’ve seen him leap from his seat, fists pumping, roaring a barbarian yawp.

It’s not that he doesn’t emote. It’s just never been the upturned mouth-corners variety.

Nice to know, then, that he can be kind and charitable to the little ones. Fletch took a moment to engage one of the ten year-olds who stayed up past bedtime to wipe perspiration from the court. He even helped out with the wiping.

I’m sitting in the Landmark Diner, in Atlanta, Romelda Jordan’s favorite town. As usual, I allowed myself an extra day to edit photos and collect my thoughts. The obvious conclusion is that our tiny team will get zoned by every taller team for the rest of the year. But that’s probably not true.

Brad Underwood explained that his team knows how to attack a zone. They simply didn’t follow their instructions.

Except, maybe once.

Nightmares about consistent rejection should take care of that.

But yes, the officiating was awful.

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Reason Mike Thomas Got Fired

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.

  1. Irritate all those same longtime donors
  2. 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.