Mike Thomas addresses firestorm surrounding Illini athletics


More than a week after Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter and accused Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman of being an abusive bully who forces his players to play hurt and threatens to take their scholarships away, the university's athletics department remains in the middle of an ever-growing firestorm.

This week has brought allegations against the coaching staff of Illinois' women's basketball program, allegations that included verbal abuse and forcing players to play injured — similar to ones against made against the football program — as well as allegations of "racist overtures," such as the suggestion of separate practices for African-American players.

While an independent investigation is underway into the accusations directed toward the football program, an internal investigation of the women's basketball program found that no laws, NCAA rules or university rules were violated. However, one of the assistant coaches being accused by the families of former players did leave the program. Head coach Matt Bollant's team has lost eight players this offseason either to graduation or transfer.

In the midst of the controversies surrounding the athletics department, Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas has spoken with numerous media members in recent days, including an interview with Jeremy Werner of ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign. Werner's interview with Thomas aired Wednesday, and Thomas, who's taken plenty of heat for supporting the accused coaches, defended his stance.

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"I don't think there should be a rush to judgment," Thomas told Werner. "I think it surprises me when people ask the question, 'Why are you supporting these coaches?' Well, the investigative process into one of them is almost complete, and the other one is just getting started. So let the facts play out and let's not rush to judgment because the facts are going to determine what the next steps are.

"We live in a different world than we used to live in five, 10, 15 years ago. And what happens today when these things happen and the push that they get really from social media that gets out there, those judgments, those opinions are formed well before — the process itself, the investigative process is going to move a lot slower than social media. So until that catches up and those outcomes are out there — and then at which we'll determine our next steps — that's really the thing that's most important. The facts are going to speak for themselves. These are investigations that DIA (department of intercollegiate athletics) and myself are not part of. It was my doing as soon as I found out about both situations when I went to the chancellor's office, I moved it out of this department, which it should be out of this department. Myself or anyone over there should not compromise the integrity of this process. I think most athletic directors would tell you the same thing. I think they would support their coaches, but certainly we're going to go through a process and we'll see how that process plays out."

Additionally, Thomas said that the investigations would be as transparent as possible, though both involve medical situations that will prevent full transparency. Thomas, though, said that the department's sports medicine staff has a great track record and has done a "tremendous job."

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Interestingly, Thomas addressed what might be at the center of these situations, and that's the culture of sports in general.

"Regardless of what the outcomes are, we need to take a look and we need to see how we can do better. And I can tell you there's other schools in the country, athletic programs — because I've talked to a lot of ADs already — that are going to have to take a look as to how the different interactions with student-athletes. Because some of the things that may have been acceptable in the old-school way of coaching may not be acceptable anymore," Thomas said. "And I think we've talked to our own coaches about that, I've talked to other ADs about that, and so it's not going to be something that's isolated to the University of Illinois. Regardless to the level of the outcomes, we've got to take that information and figure out how we can do better."

Werner followed up by asking where the line is drawn between being an effective coach and going too far into the old ways of doing things.

"I think it's open to interpretation," Thomas responded, "and that's what makes this difficult because kids take coaching differently. Where's that line? Well, that line's different: might be the sport, might be the coach, might be that particular kid."

As he did with Cvijanovic's initial accusations toward Beckman, Thomas called the allegations toward the women's basketball program "disheartening" and said, "That's not what we're about and not what we're going to be about."

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