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Illinois Athletic Director Candidates: 6 options to replace Mike Thomas

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Mike Thomas is out. Here's a list of potential candidates with Illini ties.

In a sudden announcement Monday morning, the University of Illinois and Chancellor Barbara Wilson fired athletic director Mike Thomas. Associate athletic director Paul Kowalczyk will be named as the interim AD, but it will only be a matter of time before the University hires a new one. Much like we have been doing with head football coaching candidates, below is a list of people that could potentially be the interim's replacement.

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Jason Lener, executive senior associate AD at Illinois

Lener would be a hire from within, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Having been at Illinois since 2011, Lener has been apart of major projects like the State Farm Center renovation and the Memorial Stadium scoreboard insertion/renovation. He previously served as the deputy athletic director at Miami University and has also had experience in the sales and marketing department at Pittsburgh. Lener might not be the home run candidate boosters and fans are looking for, but he's a guy who knows the University well and has proven he has the skills to take on the job.

Jim Phillips, athletic director at Northwestern

This may be the most unlikely candidate to actually land in Champaign as the new AD, but he's an intriguing one. Phillips was hired to be Northwestern's athletic director back in 2008 after serving as Northern Illinois' AD for the previous four calendar years. In addition to building up the Wildcats through their "Chicago's Big Ten team" campaign (hahahahaha), Phillips completed a two-year stint as the Athletic Director Chair of the Big Ten conference as well as being a member of the Rose Bowl Management Committee. He holds Illinois ties too; he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1990 and started his career as a student manager and assistant to the Illini's athletic department the following year. It might be a stretch to think that Phillips would leave his job in Evanston to take the same position in the same conference in Champaign, but it's not outside the realm of possibility.

Mike Small, head golf coach at Illinois

Small might be one of the most popular guys in Champaign-Urbana, which is why he's certainly a candidate for the AD job. In his fifteen seasons as the men's head golf coach, Small has brought national recognition to the Illini and led them to a semifinal round of match play this past year at the 2015 NCAA championships. They have earned multiple Big Ten and NCAA Regional championship titles as well. Small can also be credited for his hard push to build new golf facilities. The big question here is, does Small want to make the jump to athletic director?

Tom Michael, athletic director at Eastern Illinois

Michael has only been the AD at Eastern for just over a calendar year, but he also boasts past experience in Champaign. Tom played on the Fighting Illini basketball team for four years from 1991 to 1994 and holds the single-season record for three-point field goal percentage. He also served as the executive senior associate AD, the position Jason Lener currently holds, for nearly three years from 2011 to 2014. He helped oversee the beginnings of the State Farm Center renovation and facilitated some of the new technology installments at Memorial Stadium. Following up AD Michael Thomas with AD Thomas Michael would certainly be interesting.

Craig Tiley, former head tennis coach at Illinois

A name that Illini fans have probably not heard in a while, Tiley was the head tennis coach in Champaign for 11 years and led the team to a national championship back in 2003. While he isn't the first name that is popping up in peoples' minds, he has strong Illinois ties and even showed an interest in the job during an interview with CBS Chicago's Dave Wischnowsky:

Once I had closed my notebook, Tiley - completely unprompted - kept on talking. And that day he shared with me how he was interested in one day following Ron Guenther as Illinois athletic director if and when the current AD retired. At the time of our talk back in 1997, I was just a 21-year-old collegekid with a pen, a pad of paper and little else, but I found it interesting that Tiley still felt compelled to tell me about his dream job. He apparently wanted it that much.

Tiley may not be option number one, but he is certainly worth check in to considering how much interest he has shown.

Rick George, athletic director at Colorado

Sensing a theme here? Another candidate with strong ties to the Illini (something most fans would consider an essential requirement to becoming an AD). George started at cornerback for the football team back in the 1980s and became a recruiting coordinator later that decade. He is now the AD at Colorado after mulling over offers from other big-name schools like Ole Miss before accepting the job in 2013. He is also the chief operating officer with the Texas Rangers. As one Illinois assistant coach said after George was hired in Boulder, "Colorado has no idea how good Rick George is. I'll tell you this: They're going to find out how good he is."

So, what do you think? Weigh in with who you believe should be Illinois' next athletic director in the comments below!