Illinois fires athletic director 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 the department was plunged into crisis when football and women's basketball players said 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, more than 1,200 pages in all, on independent investigations into the allegations. The football report found that Beckman pressured players to play hurt, sometimes profanely questioning their toughness in front of other players, and interfered in medical decisions. That echoed details that were disclosed when he was fired.
The latest women's basketball investigation found no evidence to back up allegations from seven former players that, among other things, some were pressured to play hurt.
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, athletic director and their boss, the chancellor.
Wilson said no decision would be made on a football coach until the season ends. Interim coach Bill Cubit has made clear he'd like the job. And Wilson said it's too early to say when and how Thomas will be replaced.
Senior associate athletic director Paul Kowalczyk was named interim athletic director. He said he planned to quickly meet with coaches 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."
The report said more than one trainer had left after interference from Beckman in medical decisions, and said team physicians had sometimes had to intervene. One physician told investigators he had worked for other coaches at Illinois and elsewhere and had not seen coaches pressure medical staff to the degree he said Beckman did.
The report also included interviews with Beckman, who said he questioned players' toughness as a motivational tool.
Beckman has indicated he might sue the university over his firing and his attorney, Bruce Braun of Chicago, on Monday called the report a "thinly veiled" attempt to justify his termination by Thomas.
"Coach Beckman never intentionally placed a player in harm's way, and while motivating his players to reach their full potential on and off the football field, he relied on the university's trained medical professionals to determine when a player was unfit for practice or game participation," Braun said in an emailed statement.
The report didn't find wrongdoing by other members of Beckman's staff, including Cubit. The interim coach said Monday that he was unaware of any problems with Beckman's treatment of players, but said interaction with medical staff was primarily the responsibility of the head coach.
Cubit added that when he took over, he thought the culture of the football program needed to change.
"A lot — being here a few years, some negativity has crept in," he said.
Women's basketball coach Matt Bollant said he was relieved by the release of Tuesday's report. An earlier investigation commissioned by the university found no evidence of other allegations by the former players, such as the creation of a racially hostile environment by Bollant and former assistant Mike Divilbiss. Divilbiss quit not long after the allegations surfaced.
Terry Ekl, the lawyer for the players, called Thomas' firing "a step in the right direction." But Ekl said the latest report wouldn't affect their lawsuit.
The ouster of Beckman and Thomas are just part of what has been a tumultuous year at the university.
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.
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