Illinois AD Officially Has Higher Standards than UCLA AD

Attention, Dan Guerrero: this is how a real Athletic Director does it.

An article on the ESPN Chicago website discussed Illinois AD Mike Thomas and his refusal this week to publicly give a vote of confidence to his men's basketball coach, Bruce Weber. You know what that likely means for Weber. It means Thomas has high standards for the University of Illinois, things aren't good enough with the basketball program, and the AD is not going to stand for it.

We know this because he not only said it publicly, he said it directly to an Illinois fan. Almost as impressive as AD Thomas having high standards, and making these comments is that he made them in direct conversation with the Illinois fan base.

Thomas took about an hour of phone calls Saturday morning from a mostly disgruntled Illinois basketball fanbase on WDWS-1400 AM in Champaign, Ill.

"I need to look at the total body of work and all of the things that come into play as far as making those decisions. Because those are important decisions and they affect a lot of people. I'll tell you this: No one wants to win more than I do. I'm here to win championships."

"You certainly look at the competitive piece," Thomas said. "You look at your recruiting. You look at trends, the trajectory. Are they on an upward trajectory? You look at other things. You look at other things that might be off the floor as they relate to compliance and academics."

Here is an AD who gets it. If only our own AD had similar standards.

At a quick glance, Illinois basketball is having a decent year right now. The Illini are 16-8 in a very competitive B1G Ten that features 5 teams that are ranked in the AP Top 25 (#3 Ohio State, #11 Michigan State, #21 Wisconsin, #22 Michigan, #23 Indiana. Those teams account for half of the Illini's losses, with nationally ranked UNLV and Missouri accounting for 2 others. Illinois is certainly in play for a tournament berth. Contrast that to our Bruins at 14-11 and 7th place in a conference that has no teams receiving votes, and with 9 of our losses coming against unranked teams. By any comparison, Illinois has got it all over us right now.

But that's not good enough for the Illinois AD.

"Is it realistic that we in any sport are going to win the Big Ten championship every year?" Thomas said. "It's probably not likely. But even in those situations, you want to be part of the discussion. You want to feel that energy and excitement is there when you get towards the end of the season.

"And then when you're looking into the NCAA postseason play, it's not a question of whether you're in the tournament, now you're sitting there saying, 'Where are we going to be seeded?' "

Nor has recent history been that bad for Illinois. In 8 years under Weber, the Illini are 83-53 (61%), reached the NCAA Tournament in 6 of those years and made it to the Championship game in his second year (they lost to UNC), and have just one sub .500 season. Not too bad, right? Lots of schools would be happy to have that sort of success over nearly a decade.

But that's not good enough for the Illinois AD.

"For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men's basketball program," Thomas said. "There's no doubt about. We have to be in the higher ranks of the Big Ten Conference. Let's face it, in the Big Ten, not just men's basketball but for anything, if you're in the upper crust, you're a top team nationally.

"That's where Illinois used to have a history of, a good part of history has been that kind of program. We need to not only get to be that kind of program -- [what] is more difficult is to sustain that."

Holy cow. Those sounds like words I would expect from an AD at Duke or UNC or Kansas, or, well, even U.C.L.A, demanding that his school maintain a certain standard. Illinois is lucky. AD Thomas clearly has higher standards than most, and especially more than a certain Chianti loving AD in Westwood.

With no disrespect to the University of Illinois (which means I'm about to say something disrespectful) but when I think of them, I think of a middle of the road team in a major conference stocked with perennial powers. Big Ten football is Michigan and Ohio State and Wisconsin and Penn State and Michigan State and now Nebraska, and then a bunch of others (which actually add up to 12, but the math is not the point). Being number seven there sounds not great but certainly respectable. More than that, Illinois has had some very good football teams recently. They played in the Rose Bowl just 4 years ago, were in 2 BCS bowls in the last decade, and won bowl games their last 2 years. In basketball, the Illini have historically looked up at programs like Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue and Michigan and tOSU and Wisconsin. Again, being number seven in that group doesn't seem that terrible. Despite that, Illinois had that Final Four run a few years back and has almost always appeared in the NCAA Tournament since the early 1980's. There are a lot of teams that have done much much worse.

Illinois has typically been a solid program with some very good years here and there, and I will always personally love Champaign-Urbana as being the birthplace of REO Speedwagon (which is currently playing on my computer right now, but that's not the point either), but I don't think one could argue that Illinois is always considered alongside Michigan and Ohio State when one thinks of the Big Ten.

And, as I've said, that isn't good enough to the Illinois AD. This is about an AD who is unwilling to settle for being a second tier program, even in a conference of traditional national powers, even when they themselves have the reputation of being second tier behind those bigger names.

We saw this first hand last December when we were squaring off with them in the Hunger Game in San Francisco, and we know how that went. Like U.C.L.A., Illinois was featuring a new head football coach. Unlike U.C.L.A., Illinois was not backed into a corner by alumni calling for a change. Thomas was out front in the demand for excellence back then.

"I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership," Thomas said. "It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn't here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it's clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited. I believe we need new leadership to take the program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis. This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best."

Contrast this to Guerrero, after a decade of decline and a recent spate of embarrassing blowouts, being hauled kicking and screaming by irate alumni to the forced decision to replace our football coach. How do you think AD Thomas would have handled that situation? Don't even get me started on how coaching searches were conducted. And this is to say nothing of Guerrero's acceptance of mediocrity or decline in so many areas under his responsibility.

We don't hear Thomas justifying his University's average performances in football and now basketball by diverting attention away from what he sees as substandard programs by instead talking about his NCAA runner up women's volleyball team, or last year's baseball regional finalist, this year's top 10 wrestling squad or top 20 men's tennis team or top 20 women's gymnastics team or #2 men's gymnastics team. Kudos to the student-athletes there, btw. Illinois is obviously having a lot of success with its Olympic sports right now.

But that's not good enough for the Illinois AD. And he doesn't fake dealing with it by issuing a weekly newsletter with a single hand-picked softball of a question that doesn't begin to address the root of anything that is wrong with an athletic department. He went face to face (well, technically, voice to voice) on the the radio where anyone who wanted could call in and speak to him directly. This wasn't just an on-air interview. The fans spoke to him and he spoke back to them.

Can anyone imagine that we'll hear Guerrero taking calls from the Bruin fans on KLAC anytime soon? Why bother with little things like communication and accountability when you are already pulling down a $700K salary? Imagine an AD responding to concerns from his fan base, in public, voice to voice.

Thomas acknowledged he understood Illinois fans were passionate about their basketball team. He said he has to eliminate his emotions when making a decision.

"I've got to filter that out of it," Thomas said. "I have to look at it more in an objective way. That's also part of my job description. I can't get hung up in the emotional part of this, and that's very easy to do."

With our current debate here on BN regarding the future of Coach Howland, I am struck by the idea of trusting an AD to make the tough decisions. Whether we want Howland to stay or go becomes even more problematic when you consider who is currently in charge to make the decision, and who will find a replacement if a new coach is needed. So while I think that the ceiling for U.C.L.A. Basketball has become pretty low with Howland running the show, I can't say that firing him now is necessarily a viable option. Dan seems satisfied to sip more Chianti, pocket an outlandish amount of the California taxpayers' money, and fiddle while Westwood burns.

I asked Joe Kutsunis, the manager at the Illinois blog Hail To The Orange, what Illini fans thought of Thomas (and a big HT to him for his help on this).

At the very least, Thomas is someone who is not emotionally invested in the status quo in the Athletic Department. He understands that attendance, revenues, and national profile are paramount to running successful programs, and has stated that it is these sort of real and quantifiable factors that drive his decisions on retaining, dismissing, and hiring coaches.

The only thing that anyone can really ask of their AD is that they assess every situation without emotion and make the decision that just makes the most sense.

Illinois is more than a bit ahead of U.C.L.A. in football and basketball these days. So if things at Illinois aren't good enough for their AD Mike Thomas (who, btw, makes $475K), why is our last decade at U.C.L.A., where I would argue that our tradition is more rich and our standards should be higher, apparently good enough for Dan Guerrero?

That one's easy. It isn't good enough. Which is why Dan Guerrero isn't good enough for U.C.L.A.

Attention, Chancellor Block...

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