It can’t be easy being Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas these days.
Thomas must have known -- like anyone following Illini sports -- this had the makings of a make-or-break year for the football and men’s basketball programs. If both teams did too much losing, he'd have to decide if it was time to fire their coaches.
It couldn’t have been a position Thomas hoped for -- as much as athletic directors often prefer to have “their” coaches in place at some point in their tenures. It’s rare an AD welcomes hearing from an unhappy and vocal fanbase about their teams' failures; no one in the position enjoys firing coaches and loves the painstaking process of a coaching search.
In a perfect world, Ron Zook and Bruce Weber would be Thomas’ football and men’s basketball coaches for as long Thomas is at Illinois. Legendary coaches, consistency and winning, these are the type of words athletic directors cherish. Life is a lot easier when you’re an athletic director to a coach like Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo.
But, of course, that isn’t Thomas’ reality.
Thomas first had to decide what to do with Zook after Illinois endured a rocky football season. Zook looked like he was going to make it simple for Thomas and easily secure his job when Illinois won its first six games and thrust itself in the national rankings. It was a start few expected, but it was followed by a finish even fewer could have anticipated. The Illini dropped their final six regular-season games and sputtered into a bowl game.
Thomas fired Zook in November, but it wasn’t a black-and-white decision. Zook recruited NFL talent, reached bowl games and even coached Illinois to the Rose Bowl during seven seasons. But as Thomas has said on numerous occasions, he assesses coaches based on whether they can consistently compete for Big Ten championships and where the program is heading. In Zook’s case, Illinois didn’t win enough and Thomas couldn’t foresee the future being much brighter.
And now, Thomas has to figure out if Weber deserves the same fate. Like Zook, Weber’s time at Illinois has been all over the map. Weber directed Illinois to the national championship game in 2005, but he has also failed to reach the NCAA tournament. He’s recruited a McDonald’s All-American (Jereme Richmond) and potential lottery pick Meyers Leonard, but he’s also missed on plenty of Chicago’s elite talent. Weber has had success, but most of it is in his rearview mirror.
Thomas went into the lion's den on Saturday and took phone calls on a Champaign radio station from a dissatisfied fanbase. Depending how you look at it, he was either brave or foolish to do so. Either way, he must have known what he was getting into. There had even been postings on message boards alerting fans of Thomas’ radio appearance and telling them to get their questions ready.
Thomas was lucky enough to get a few questions about the football and women’s volleyball programs, but he had to listen as the majority of callers bashed the men’s basketball program and Weber. Callers questioned Weber’s recruiting and his success since former coach Bill Self’s recruits left. They made statements about how attendance has dropped in recent years and the fans have lost their luster.
Thomas declined to comment on Weber’s job status, stating he would assess him and the program after the season like he does for all Illinois’ 18 teams. At the same time, he did Weber no favors. While fans were making Weber a figurative piñata with each call, Thomas didn’t defend his coach once or bring up Weber’s positives. His lack of support spoke volumes.
Instead, Thomas focused on what his expectations were for the men’s basketball program. As he stated each goal, it seemed more and more like the program wasn’t currently living up to those standards.
“For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men's basketball program," Thomas said Saturday on WDWS-1400 AM. "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.”
Thomas also said he doesn’t want his teams wondering if they’re getting into the NCAA tournament, but what their seed would be. The last couple of years, the men’s basketball team wasn’t sure what to expect on Selection Sunday.
Weber’s is as good of a guy as you’ll find in the coaching ranks. He’s genuine and honest in all he says and does, which ironically may be his strength as a person, but also a weakness in recruiting the nation’s best teenagers who often want to be sold the world to play for a program. Weber's likeability certainly doesn't make Thomas' decision any easier.
Fans tend to dehumanize coaches as they call for their heads. I don’t think any of us would feel good if someone began saying we were unfit for our jobs and pleaded with someone take away our paychecks and livelihood. But it comes with the territory of being a Division I basketball coach.
You add all of it up, and Thomas will have a lot to weigh in the next month.