Illinois fires AD after athlete allegations
Champaign, Ill. — Illinois fired athletic director Mike Thomas on Monday, saying he had done nothing wrong but a change was needed after football and women’s basketball players alleged they had been mistreated by their coaches.
Thomas, who will be paid $2.5 million to buy out the remainder of his contract, said he believes he acted appropriately but accepts the decision.
“I believe it is a good time to turn the page and put the focus of this organization back on the success and welfare of our student-athletes,” Thomas said in a prepared statement.
Thomas is the latest high-profile leader to be swept aside in the turmoil at the university’s flagship campus this year, following the resignation of one of his top backers, chancellor Phyllis Wise, and the August firing of football coach Tim Beckman.
The school also released final reports on independent investigations into the players’ allegations. The football report found that Beckman pressured players to play hurt and interfered in medical decisions, echoing details that were disclosed when he was fired, but the women’s basketball investigation found no evidence of racially motivated player mistreatment as alleged by seven former players.
Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson praised Thomas for leading the athletic department through a difficult six months, but said the university’s sports programs needed a fresh start. She declined to offer details on exactly why she decided to fire Thomas.
“It’s time to put the distractions of the past months behind us,” Wilson said at a news conference at Memorial Stadium. “This has not been an easy decision, but I believe it’s the one that will allow us to concentrate on the future.”
The move leaves hiring decisions still to be made on a head football coach, where Bill Cubit is serving on an interim basis, athletic director and their boss, the chancellor.
Senior associate athletic director Paul Kowalczyk will take over for Thomas as interim athletic director. He said he planned to quickly meet with coaches on campus and with major donors and business partners to try to assure them that the sports programs and projects such as the renovation of the State Farm Center basketball arena are on track.
“I’m going to take the helm at this point and try to calm the waters,” said Kowalczyk, who added that Thomas offered to help him get up to speed. “I feel for the guy.”
Allegations of mistreatment by former football player Simon Cvijanovic surfaced in May, and the report found that Beckman “employed tactics that violated standards related to sports medicine protocols and scholarships.”
For the women’s basketball program, the report said claims that against coach Matt Bollant and an assistant created a racially abusive environment were unfounded. The assistant, Mike Divilbiss, quit months ago, and the players have sued the school, Bollant and Thomas. A former women’s soccer player also sued the school, claiming she was improperly cleared to play after a concussion.
Amid all of that, Wise resigned in August, just before the university revealed she used a private email account to avoid scrutiny of her discussions of university business.
Thomas came to Illinois from Cincinnati in 2011, replacing longtime athletic director Ron Guenther. He received a contract extension and a raise a year and a half ago, and university trustees praised him for the $60 million generated when the university sold the naming rights to the Assembly Hall arena to State Farm help pay for its $165 million renovation.
Thomas also moved to shore up the Illini’s high-profile struggling teams, firing football coach Ron Zook, men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law. Fans, however, were lukewarm about his hiring of Beckman, men’s basketball coach John Groce and Bollant.