The Tide Turns?

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Sometimes, you’re nervous enough about the dire consequences of a pending decision that you can’t even really discuss it or think too hard about it, otherwise it will do nothing but torment you. That has been my situation with the Illinois AD search. All signs point to this being the final fork in the road for the foreseeable future. We could either make the dreaded hire from within and continue on the path of underwhelming mediocrity with success occasionally sprinkled in….or we could go for it. And by “it” I mean the as-yet unrealized potential ceiling for the flagship university in the most populous state in the Midwest.

There’s certainly the feeling that it’s now or never. The Big Ten looks primed to continue its upward trend in national reach and prominence, adding Nebraska and a football title game. Memorial Stadium has been modernized, with Assembly Hall soon to follow. There’s new University leadership either in place or on the way that seems to understand the very real university-wide benefits athletics can bring to students, prospective students and alumni. A botched hire now – one that stalls Illinois’ ability to keep pace for 5+ years – could doom us to being Minnesota.  

But in a show of competence that left me surprised, relieved and excited, Illinois plucked Mike Thomas – the man awkwardly putting Brian Kelly in a headlock in the photo above – from Cincinnati.

Besides the fact that Cincinnati went to two BCS bowls under his watch, here’s all you really need to see here (from his press conference):

“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state.  I think we need to be the king of the state; I think we need to be the king of Chicago. I think we need to be branded that way, and if we’re doing things the right way – if we’re winning at a high level, we’re working with integrity, and our kids continue to get it done in the classroom – then our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”

Bold mine, for fist-pumping agreement and emphasis. Look, I understand that Chicago is a pro sports town, and that Illinois will never “own” it the way Iowa owns somewhere like Des Moines or Ohio State owns somewhere like Cleveland (largely because those places also kind of suck), but I also saw what happened with the 2005 basketball team and know that the university can be trying a hell of a lot harder to even get back in the ballpark of that level of interest. Instead, we do amateurish things like pull our broadcast deal from WSCR because they say mean things about us and hitch our wagon to a station you can’t reliably pick up driving on the Kennedy. We play against miserable competition at the United Center (and sometimes lose!). Instead of doing everything possible to harness and energize the massive alumni base in the city, the university has been content to lazily embrace the inferiority complex that the rest of the state has with Cook County. What it should be doing is challenging it as if its life depended on it. Because it does. Mike Thomas seems to get that in a way that Ron Guenther either never did, or was too stubborn to ever admit. He always seemed like he wanted Chicago to meet him halfway.

As always, A Lion Eye writes as if he is the voice inside my head. But then again, this sentiment should be wildly commonplace –  some thoughts are so obvious that anyone who devotes even semi-serious thought to Illini athletics has been thinking them for a long, long time.

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