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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.

 

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Weirdest Game of the Season?

I’m open-minded about new experiences, but if there’s a weirder Illini game this season, I hope it looks better than the slopfest versus American University.

The Illini committed 14 turnovers, including a pair of passes to nobody at all, and some other passes where no Illini was in the vicinity.

Kendrick Nunn appeared tentative and mistake-prone. That’s weird. Rayvonte Rice connected on 1-of-7 field goal attempts. That’s bizarre.

The Illini used this game to try a number of new dead ball sets, both on offense and defense.  The inbounds plays,  John Groce said, were implemented to counter American’s style of play, and not because it’s that time of year when the team is ready to learn some new plays.

That might be true. But Groce is leery of opponents scouting his public comments as well as his practices, and game videos. He also rejected the idea that a full-court zone press was “new” to this year’s team. But he called for it in new situations, e.g. before halftime, and with a lead.

 

So it could be that now, after the team has put its challenging pre-season traveling schedule behind themselves, Groce feels comfortable asking the team to employ some sets that future opponents, such as the Villanova Wildcats for example, have not seen. Or maybe he wants the Villanova coaching staff to panic, horrified to learn that, with three days to go, Illinois’ most easily scouted plays have been replaced by new sets.

Mind games. Who doesn’t love ’em?

Groce was a little edgy and short in his postgame press conference, perhaps because he had an atypical third postgame media responsibility, an exclusive with Ryan Baker for CBS Chicago. Maybe that’s why no one asked him about Illinois’ 5-for-12 performance from three-point range. That’s not many attempts for this Illini team. It’s also a low number given the opponent.

But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which, after the 23% performance at Miami, Groce encouraged his guys to look for more opportunities inside the arc. The two guys who weren’t the leading scorer but were fingered for postgame meet-the-media responsibilities just happened to be the least likely on the team to jack a shot from distance.

TIDBITS

Groce called for “reinforcements” leading up to the game’s first media time-out. Having spent the last 10 days repeatedly citing Nick Saban’s postgame comments from the Iron Bowl, he’s now borrowing from the John Calipari playbook.

Calipari, as everyone knows, decided to play two platoons, rather than concede that any of his million dollar babies is not a starter. Groce usually (not always) sends four fresh bodies at the first time out, leaving only Ray in the game.

Illini players got a kick out of the terminology. “Did he just say ‘reinforcements?'” They too are aware of John Calipari.

Illinois players connected on their first 18 free throw attempts. When Jaylon Tate finally missed in the game’s closing minutes, the entire SFC crowd groaned. It’s nice to know that our fans pay close attention, and know what’s going on in a game.

Jan the Usher, my number one source, says SFC’s two 200-level (C Tier) sections of unsold seats is construction related, not a barometer of fan interest. It’s to do with access to an exit, currently blocked. In other words, fire marshal stuff. The plan is to have the entire 200-;level open when MAryland comes to town, to open B1G play.