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updated: 8/17/2011 7:26 PM

New Illinois AD busy getting to know his way around

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  • New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas

    New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas


Mike Thomas doesn't become Illinois' athletic director on a full-time basis until Aug. 29.

But when he's not tying up loose ends at the University of Cincinnati, he's whipping around the Midwest getting a jump-start on his new gig.

On Wednesday, he hopped aboard a prominent Illinois booster's private plane at 8 a.m. in Cincinnati for a flight to Midway.

Thomas spent five hours in Chicago that featured a visit to BTN headquarters, an interview session with the media and a private lunch with a dozen key donors at a restaurant across from the Lyric Opera.

Then Thomas and his small Illini traveling party reboarded the plane for a two-hour touchdown in St. Louis, where he introduced himself to more media and more important boosters.

As if that wasn't enough glad-handing and communicating, Thomas and crew flew to Champaign by 5 p.m. so he could attend a larger function at Memorial Stadium's 77 Club.

"I've (taken over athletic departments) a few times," Thomas said. "This is No. 3. I obviously have a lot of confidence in what I'm doing, but when you first walk on campus it's like drinking water out of a fire hose.

"The priorities are learning the landscape. There are a lot of people that I've got to get engaged with, I've got to get to know."

Thomas continues his whirlwind tour Thursday. He plans to have lunch with former basketball coach Lou Henson, but he will start his day by meeting with Illinois' coaches.

"I would hope we all have the same goals," Thomas said. "We're here to win championships, We're here to graduate student-athletes, and we're here to be integrated on our campus and in our communities.

"That was my strategic plan at Cincinnati, and that's going to be a big part of my template at the University of Illinois."

Judging by Thomas' success with Brian Kelly at Cincinnati -- the Bearcats earned back-to-back BCS bowl bids before Kelly left for Notre Dame -- he won't pay much heed to Illinois' mediocre football results over the last 20 years.

"Brian was easy," Thomas said. "Brian, like me, had high expectations. And I think he and I will tell you the same thing: It's amazing what you can achieve when you don't listen to other people's expectations. That will be important."

Bruce Weber won't be available for the meeting because the men's basketball team is in the midst of its trip to Italy, but it will serve as Thomas' first contact with most of Illinois' other coaches.

Thomas spoke briefly on the phone with football coach Ron Zook last Thursday.

"It was a 'hello,'" Thomas said. "He was up at Camp (Rantoul). I'm looking forward to getting to spend more time with him."

Thomas, as one might expect, hasn't formed opinions on Zook, Weber or any of Illinois' other coaches.

"I would assume we have the same goals," Thomas said. "We want to win Big Ten championships. We want to advance in the NCAA Tournament. We want to play in BCS bowl games."

That having been said, Thomas indicated he's similar to former Illinois AD Ron Guenther in that he prefers to rely primarily on himself to find new coaches.

When he had to replace Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2006, he selected Kelly in part due to Kelly's prodigious, wide-open offense.

"I loved Mark Dantonio, but Mark's more of a defensive coach and he had a different way he was going to win football games," Thomas said. "I needed to bring in a coach who played a different brand of football that would get people at Cincinnati excited, that would fill up the stadium, which would help us increase our revenues, which would help us on the fundraising side and the branding and all that.

"And, you know, Brian can sell ice to the Eskimos. That's just how he's wired. He and I spent a lot of time together on external stuff, but he wasn't someone whose arm you had to twist. He was terrific with that."