Illinois’ new AD Mike Thomas has history of success

Illinois didn’t hire Mike Thomas solely to evaluate Ron Zook and Bruce Weber.

Thomas, introduced Wednesday as the successor to 19-year athletic director Ron Guenther, climbs from the University of Cincinnati to Champaign with plenty of projects on his plate.

Ÿ Thomas, 51, needs to steer the upcoming Assembly Hall renovation and raise money to get it done.

Ÿ He needs to figure out how to modernize the south end of Memorial Stadium and raise money to get it done.

Ÿ He needs to learn how to harness the power of Chicago — a project that hasn’t gotten easier with Northwestern’s all-in bid for the Second City’s hearts, minds and dollars.

“We need to be the king of the state,” Thomas told reporters after his news conference. “We need to be the king of Chicago. We need to have a real presence there.”

But while building and fundraising and brand-improving are important — along with finding a radio partner in Chicago everyone can hear — fans care mostly about winning and losing.

They care about trying to gauge how much Thomas believes in veteran coaches like Zook and Weber — and whether Thomas has the ability to make the right hire if he determines Illinois needs somebody new.

This might a good place to mention Thomas won two Neyland Outstanding Athletics Director Awards: the first in 2005 at Akron and the other in 2008 at Cincinnati. What do the awards represent?

“It’s really about having success on the football field,” Thomas said. “When I was at the University of Akron, they’d been playing football for over 100 years. I hired a coach and they went to their first Div. I-bowl game, won their first Mid-American Conference championship.

“Certainly at the University of Cincinnati, that was on the heels of winning the Big East for the first time and going to the Orange Bowl.”

Then Thomas offered a deadpan comment that suggests he might have a welcome sense of humor:

“I guess they didn’t think it was worthy the next year when we went to the Sugar Bowl (with a 12-0 record) and finished third in the country.”

Thomas hired Brian Kelly to replace Michigan State-bound Mark Dantonio after the 2006 regular season. Kelly won 34 of 40 games at Cincinnati before leaving for Notre Dame.

As for his two basketball hires, Thomas appeared to appreciate guys with ties to his school.

He promoted assistant Keith Dambrot in 2004 at Akron. The Zips averaged 12.3 wins during Dambrot’s four years as an assistant, but they’ve averaged 23.1 wins and made two NCAA appearances with him at the helm.

“(Thomas) will do a terrific job,” Dambrot said via text. “Great guy.”

Within four months of becoming Cincinnati’s athletic director, Thomas hired 34-year-old Mick Cronin (a former Bob Huggins assistant) to be the head coach.

In doing so, he bypassed interim coach Andy Kennedy and his six years’ worth of work for the Bearcats.

Though Cronin posted a sub-.500 record in his first four years, Thomas stayed the course with his guy. He reaped the reward in March when Cronin led the Bearcats to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost to eventual champ Connecticut in the round of 32.

What does all this mean for Zook’s and Weber’s job security?

Not only does there not appear to be a trend, Thomas had never spoken to Zook or Weber prior to accepting the AD job.

“When that opportunity comes,” Zook said after Illinois’ second practice Wednesday night in Rantoul, “there’s a lot of things I’d like to bounce off him.

“But right now I’m worried about finishing camp here and continuing to improve and get better.”