It's safe to say that we as Illini fans expected the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to make a major decision at the end of the football season, no matter the team's record or postseason status. But when the University of Illinois announced Monday morning that Mike Thomas would no longer be the athletic director, we could only wonder why the decision was made to release Thomas with 3 weeks remaining in the football season. Luckily, the situation taking place in Columbia Missouri will overshadow most of what Illinois released in their investigation...but there still is a fair amount of head scratching going on within Illini nation.
But regardless of why the Interim Chancellor decided to fire Mike Thomas yesterday and then give a press conference with the Interim Athletic Director that resembled an intimidated 3rd grader presenting a project to their class, a new era in Illinois athletics begins. Nobody knows what this era will be called, nor does anyone really want to venture a guess at the moment. All we know as Illini fans is that things in Champaign-Urbana need to change. Enough is enough.
***This is the part where I mention this is an editorial piece***
This summer, I was fortunate enough to cover Alex Burge and Thomas Detry in the U.S. Amateur held at Olympia Fields in suburban Chicago. One of the coolest things about the international event is the ability to explore the golf course with no ropes or restrictions. Proudly rocking my Illini Orange and Blue during the week, I was able to interact with MANY different Illini fans/alumni that are holding or have held important corporate positions in the Chicagoland area. While some of the conversation was directed towards the success of Mike Small and his nationally ranked Men's Golf Team, I was always asked the same question.
"When are they going to fire Tim Beckman and Mike Thomas?"
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of frustration with the public image that Coach Beckman was displaying among Chicago Area Alumni, and they seemed to have no issue with voicing their opinions about it (at least we're not New Yorkers). Personally, I really didn't care what Beckman had to say as long as he continued to win more games every season...and by golly he was actually accomplishing that in his three seasons as coach. But the mass quantity of fans did not want him to be associated with the University or the Football program (and for good reason).
The more opinions I gathered, the more fans told me about their desire for an "Illini Guy" to be running the show in Champaign-Urbana. Now this may sound like our version of a "Michigan man" which makes me a little uneasy, but there certainly is a compelling argument for finding our next "Illini guy."
When talking with family/friends/fans/media about where Illinois should go from here, the general consensus was that Illinois needs to find an AD that can successfully sell the program. As much people are sick of discussing tradition or the "back in the day" stories, that's EXACTLY where alumni and fans dig out their pocketbooks and buy in to. The last time Illinois football was "relevant" in a sense of winning football games consistently was the 1980's. Mind you, those basketball fans that are reading this and saying "we can/should tap into basketball tradition and history" need to know that unless you're Louisville...football is your main source of revenue in college athletics. That being said, all you need to do with your next AD hire is piece together those points and find a football player from the 1980's that can sell your program and be the next "Illini guy."
That guy is Shawn Wax.
For those of you who don't know who Shawn is, he was a star receiver for the Illini from 1988-1990 (watch this clip) that was on the 1990 Big Ten Championship team under John Mackovic. Having played for the Illini during his college career, Wax returned to the U of I to aid in raising efforts in the "I" Fund, Endowment Gifts, and Capital Projects. Going back to 2004, Wax was in charge of 5 different departments in the DIA including Premium Seating, Sports Information, Tickets, Marketing and Tuttle. Under his tenure with athletics, the budget grew to $66 million dollars and continuously exceeded goals year after year. Wax was also responsible for selling out the Suites and 77-club packages in 2008 and 2009 when the football team was a combined 8-16. It should also be noted that Wax spearheaded the initial renovation plans for the
Assem State Farm Center.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Shawn on multiple occasions during Homecoming Alumni Band events at Illinois, and the man LIVES with true Illini spirit (he even married former Illini Softball coach Terri Sullivan!). When asked about his ties to Illinois in the summer of 2009 during an interview with the News Gazette, Wax had this to say:
"The great thing is that the university sells itself. There are no credibility issues in the department because of the stability that Ron Guenther has provided. We meet people, determine their interest, and find the parts of our programs that excite them."
For 16 years, Wax held those 5 positions at Illinois. His success brought him to the private sector and then to the University of Iowa where he has been the Assistant Vice President of Development for the nationally ranked Carver College of Medicine AND the Vice President of Main Campus Development for the University of Iowa Foundation.
However, his ties to the Illini will always be present. Here's Wax on his experience as an Illini athlete in the 1980's:
"The 80s kind of belonged to the Illini," Wax said in an interview this past September. "We had a tremendous amount of success under Mike White. There were 76,000 people in the stands and a pipeline going to the NFL. It was a strong, strong time. Every sport on campus then was strong. The Flying Illini and the volleyball team both went to the Final Four. (PGA golfer) Steve Stricker was on campus. Gymnastics won the NCAA title. Baseball and track won Big Ten titles. It was a fun, fun time to be on campus."
With everything that as transpired in the last few months, I honestly cannot think of a better candidate for Athletic Director than Shawn Wax. If you're looking for a long-term solution to a struggling program, go get a guy that can successfully sell the program to fans and alumni alike. Now is your chance to get this right.