Well, the Jeff Thomas era has come and gone at the University of Illinois, so let’s reflect on all the fun times we had by seeing where it ranks among Illinois-relevant Thomas eras.
1: Thomas Rooks Era (1982-1985)
Edit: This was a big oversight on my part. Thanks to commenter Illinimac for helping me see the error in my ways!
As the leading rusher for the greatest Big Ten team of all time, Thomas Rooks has to have his era at number 1. Fighting Illini Football went 30-16-1 during his four years in Champaign, but no season compares to the 1983 campaign that saw Illinois become the first and only team to defeat every other Big Ten team in one season. This feat will never be duplicated, and Rooks had a big hand in it as he scored the winning touchdown against Ohio State.
Rooks graduated as the second leading rusher in Illini history with 2,828 yards, and only two have passed him up since then. Given the subject of this post, the Thomas Rooks era earns the number one spot with a bullet.
2: Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends Ringo Starr Era (1989-90)
There’s just no question that this was among the greatest Thomas Eras of all time. Its impact wasn’t limited to Illinois, but was certainly felt here. It’s not often you see anything firing on all cylinders quite like this show was in its first run.
3: Thomas Pieters Era (2010-2013)
In his three years at Illinois, Thomas Pieters made an undeniable impact on the men’s golf team, which continues to this day in the form of the Belgian talent pipeline. The 2012 NCAA individual champion led his team to a national runner-up performance in 2013 before going pro. In 2017 he ranked as high as 24th in the world and earned a fourth-place finish at the Masters; most recently, he teamed with fellow Belgium-to-Champaign phenom Thomas Detry to win the 2018 World Cup of Golf. This goes at 3 because there was an ILLINOIS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.
4: Frank Thomas Era (1990-2005)
The Big Hurt is a White Sox legend whose storied tenure on the South Side ended with a World Series championship, though he was sidelined for the postseason due to injury. Nevertheless, the hulking first baseman put up huge power numbers for over a decade despite never juicing, even as many of the dominant power hitters of his era did. Fun fact: in 1993, Thomas carried on Bo Jackson’s legacy by becoming the next Auburn Tigers football player to make a MLB All-Star team.
5: Chris Tamas Era (2017-Present)
This totally counts. Pronounced the same. There’s plenty of room for this one to rise; his second season at the helm of Illini women’s volleyball saw his second playoff run conclude in the Final Four. He boasts a 55-15 overall record in Champaign and a phenomenal 29-11 in America’s toughest volleyball conference: the Big Ten.
6: Ian Thomas Era (2007-2011)
It just so happens that linebacker Ian Thomas attended the University of Illinois for the same five years that I did, redshirting in 2007. If you can believe this, Illinois went to three bowl games in that five-year stretch, winning two. With a 31-32 record, this was the best five year stretch of Illinois football that doesn’t stretch into John Mackovic’s tenure that ended in 1991. This includes the 2007 season with two top-5 victories, beating Michigan in the two losing seasons, waxing Penn State on the road, Northwestern at Wrigley Field and Robert Griffin III in Texas, and the last time Illinois football was ranked. Thomas led the team in tackles in 2009, was fourth in 2010 on a much-improved defense and second in 2011, racking up 10.5 TFL’s en route to a second-team All Big Ten selection. He recently stepped down as the head coach at St. Vincent Pallotti high school in Maryland, citing a need for a break, but did coach the Panthers to a conference title in 2016.
7: Jonathan Taylor Thomas Era (1991-1998)
Dual-threat: acted AND sang. Whether he was Simba or Randy Taylor on Home Improvement, he was definitely in your home at some point in the 90’s.
8: Deon Thomas Era (1990-1994)
This would have been so much higher if not for that rat bastard Bruce Pearl and his mixtapes. The all-time leading scorer in Fighting Illini men’s hoops history only got to play in two NCAA tournaments at the back end of the Lou Henson era due to sanctions wrongfully imposed on the program by a vindictive NCAA indignant with Illinois for denying the probably false charges against them. Nevertheless, much love to the man himself, who later became a successful pro player in Europe and now calls Illini games on Fighting Illini Sports Network radio stations.
9: Thomas Jones Era (2004-2006)
Brought to the Bears along with Lovie Smith, the former seventh-overall pick gained 948 yards in his first season in Chicago as the Bears struggled to a 5-11 record. They’d pick Cedric Benson from Texas with the fourth-overall pick in 2005, but his tenure in Chicago would be a flop after a lengthy holdout and it was instead Jones who flourished in the new offense installed by freshly-fired Illini head coach Ron Turner. Jones racked up 1,334 yards and 9 touchdowns as the Bears won the NFC North in 2005 and then propelled them to a Super Bowl run in 2006. His steady production was much-needed in an offense helmed by Rex “The Sex Cannon” Grossman.
10: Jeff Thomas Era (12/21/2018-1/15/2019)
Look, when you get right down to it, the Jeff Thomas era was pretty exciting. It helped that no games were played during it, which meant Illinois football was undefeated during this time. Anyone who remembers Thomas’ initial recruitment had to realize there was never any guarantee he’d ever play for us, so with all the momentum from signing a small but solid class with some elite talent and then adding Luke Ford, AD Miller and Richie Petitbon from the transfer portal, Thomas was a big, beautiful cherry with 4.3 speed on top.
Given his stated goal of playing the NFL as soon as possible, returning to Miami was the right call even though he was clearly conflicted. I wish nothing but the best for him in the pros, where he’ll likely introduce himself as “Jeff Thomas, East St. Louis.” I have no ill will toward him and hope for his sake whoever they start at quarterback in 2019 can actually tell the difference between Thomas and the defensive backs — it would be a pretty radical shift from last year, where turnovers chained Miami inside their own half of the field with regularity.
Now, if Miami’s coaching staff wants to LOL with each other at memes they made depicting student-athletes that are supposedly important to them as property to be stolen and not as people with free will, that’s going to annoy me at first for sure. But as Miami fans helpfully reminded me, we’re apparently beefing with them now.
Sure thing, Miami. Let’s be rivals. I guess we’re peers now, since neither of our teams has won a conference title since before YouTube was launched by Illinois alumni in 2005.
11: Thomas Jefferson Era (1801-1809)
On one hand, Jefferson got a sweet deal on the Louisiana purchase, greatly expanded voter participation and advocated for public education throughout his presidency. On the other hand, he didn’t really do anything about slavery, seized what he later conceded was an inappropriate amount of executive power, and made some diplomatic miscalculations that led to the War of 1812 and Britain’s razing of our capital. But we got our national anthem out of that whole incident, so maybe it wasn’t all bad. Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia, which would eventually be defeated by the Fighting Illini 31-21 in the 1990 Florida Citrus Bowl
12: Thomas Joseph Thibodeau, Jr. Era (2010-2015)
Two words: complicated legacy. Oh what might have been if not for Derrick Rose’s knee...Thibs was the first Bulls coach since Phil Jackson to win 50+ games in a season, and with Rose in his prime and Joakim Noah forcing opponents to play as weird as he looked, the Bulls made it to the conference finals as the 1-seed, but fell to the damn Heat as Rose cooled off. The Bulls were the 1-seed again the next year and in game one it happened.
Thibodeau never had a losing season in Chicago, but never got past the conference semifinals after year one. Arguably the highlight of his post-Rose’s-knee tenure was a hobbled-ass Bulls team featuring heavy minutes from the likes of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli taking Game 1 from the Heat in Miami in the second round. This produced the immortal video below:
13: Mike Thomas Era (2011-2015)
OK, yes, I know. I know full well that the Beckman, Groce and Bollant hires were fiascos, and that those decisions led us to the awful situation we found ourselves in after his departure. But if we’re judging the Thomas era as an experience, there were upgrades to Memorial Stadium including Grange Grove, the rights deal with State Farm that funded the renovation of the basketball arena, two bowl games and an NCAA tournament run, Tyler Griffey knocking off #1 Indiana, a 2012 national title for men’s gymnastics and a national runner-up finish for the women’s volleyball team. Some terrible things came out of this era, but there were some high points as well.
14: Cam Thomas Era (2017-9/6/2018)
Cam Thomas has the athleticism to do something special in football and I hope he finds his place to do it, but during his tenure Illinois went 3-10 with wins against Ball State, Western Kentucky and Kent State. His final stat line as an Illini: 28 completions on 66 attempts for 375 yards and 5 interceptions, 233 yards on 52 rushing attempts with one touchdown. He never threw a touchdown.
15: Doubting Thomas Era (John 20:24-29)
Basically, when Saint Thomas the Apostle was told that Jesus had returned from the gruesome death he saw him die, he didn’t believe it until he actually saw Christ himself. Fair enough, right? The reason this ranks so low is not because of the passage itself but because of how often it’s cited as a reason that you should believe something unrelated to religion at all just because someone said it. For instance, that John Groce will take Illinois to the next level. I’m no scholar, but I don’t think the point of that story was “you should believe things with no evidence to support them just because you really really want them to be true.”
16: Pierre Thomas Era (2003-2006)
Pierre Thomas was a hell of a player. He started 33 games for the Fighting Illini and finished his career with the second most yards from scrimmage, with 2,545 rush yards along with 411 receiving yards. He went undrafted, but found his way into a starting gig with the New Orleans Saints and won a Super Bowl ring, and we love him and are thrilled that he achieved so much.
However, the period that was Ron to Ron under Ron (Turner to Zook, under Guenther) saw Illinois post an 8-38 record overall, with Turner’s final season in 2004 being the high point at 3-8. Wins were against Illinois State, Florida A&M, Western Michigan, Indiana, Rutgers, San Jose State, Eastern Illinois and Michigan State.
In four seasons, the Fighting Illini defeated five FBS opponents and only two Big Ten opponents. Lowlights Thomas endured included, in chronological order, a 6-3 loss to Cal, an October with scores of 43-10, 61-14, 56-14 and 36-10 as part of a nine-game skid, a 45-0 shutout at Minnesota that was their thirteenth straight conference loss (the streak would end at 14), another nine-game losing streak in which they allowed 35 or more in every single game, a second 61-14 loss to Michigan State in three years, a 56-3 halftime deficit, being outscored 77-5 over two consecutive games, a 33-0 massacre at Rutgers, a tenth straight Big Ten loss (again), and a loss to a MAC team.
Would you trade the Jeff Thomas era for the Pierre Thomas era?
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