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New coaches in place, Illini AD ready for next big step

Published: Friday, June 1, 2012 12:45 p.m. CDT

BLOOMINGTON (MCT) — Mike Thomas has been the University of Illinois’ athletic director for less than a year. He’s already hired new coaches in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

That might seem like a full plate to Illini followers. It could be time to sit back, take a rest and see what happens.

But the biggest overhaul may still be ahead for Thomas — the renovation of the 49-year-old Assembly Hall.

“Our goal is to have something in place, have some drawings in place by next summer and then go out and sell the project and put a funding plan together to hopefully start the renovation as soon as possible,” said Thomas on Thursday at Bloomington Country Club as part of the Illini Caravan.

Thomas was joined by football coach Tim Beckman, men’s basketball coach John Groce and women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant on the eighth stop of a nine-city tour. The final stop will be Friday in St. Louis.

The response of Illinois fans has been overwhelming, said Thomas.

“It’s more than anyone has expected, including the people that have put these on for years,” said Thomas. “Each city there has been record crowds. It’s been tremendous. People walk away saying it was a great event.”

Thomas said he didn’t anticipate having to hiring new coaches in the three major sports on the Champaign-Urbana campus in the first year on the job.

But Ron Zook (football), Jolette Law (women’s basketball) and Bruce Weber (men’s basketball) were fired as expectations fell short for their programs.

Thomas points out the entire sports program, helped by a national championship in men’s gymnastics and national runner-up finish in volleyball, ranks 19th in the Director’s Cup of all Division I programs. He would like to see Illinois in the top-10 on a consistent basis.

Now, bringing the Assembly Hall “into the 21st century” is a top priority for Thomas. Illinois hired an architectural firm from Kansas City in February to “put conceptual designs together which can become schematic designs.”

Thomas’ goal is to have some drawings in place by next summer before going out to sell the project and put a funding plan together.

“It needs to be more consumer and fan friendly, something to make a real home-court advantage and make it a more intimidating aspect on game day,” said Thomas. “It needs to be something that serves recruiting as well.”

Part of the project will include a Hall of Fame “to reflect the great history and tradition of basketball and something that has a wow factor,” said Thomas. Also necessary, according to Thomas, is revenue opportunities such as suites that can help pay for the project and help future funding for all 19 Illinois sports.

Whenever the project begins, Thomas said it will probably be in two stages and not displace the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

“I don’t want to take the teams off campus (for a year),” said Thomas. “You can do that, but as I tell folks I don’t want to be the Washington Generals, the team that used to play the (Harlem) Globetrotters.”

Groce looking for assistant: An unexpected opening occurred on the men’s basketball staff this week. Isaac Chew, hired less than two months ago, left Illinois to take a similar position at Marquette.

Groce, who came to Illinois after leading Ohio University to the Sweet Sixteen, isn’t in a rush to name a new assistant.

“I’m going to really think through it and make sure we get the right guy,” he said.

Chew came to Illinois after one year at Missouri. His presence was supposed to help the Illini’s recruiting efforts in Chicago.

Finding another assistant with ties to Chicago is “something to consider, for sure,” Groce said. However, it won’t be the overriding factor.

“For me, right now, the biggest thing I want is to get a guy who wants to be at Illinois and who understands what it means to be at a special place like Illinois,” said Groce.

Beckman likes passion: The caravan has shown Beckman “the passion of the orange and blue fans” throughout the state, he said.

Beckman, who was head coach at Toledo for three years before joining Illinois, is optimistic after going through spring practice.

“We really focused on fundamentals, getting better at blocking and tackling and throwing and catching and covering,” he said. “As a team they progressed, no question, each and every practice, but we still have more we have to install in (preseason) camp.”

Bollant expects more fans: Bollant came to Illinois after going 148-19 with four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“A lot of people (during the caravan) have said they haven’t been to a women’s basketball game, but they’re coming next year after listening to your enthusiasm and your record,” he said. “You don’t leave a top-15 program if you don’t believe you can make it happen here.”

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