CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The University of Illinois introduced Mike Thomas Wednesday as its athletic director, turning the program over to the man credited with raising the stature -- and success -- of sports at the University of Cincinnati.
Thomas, 51, will replace Ron Guenther, who retired this summer after 19 years on the job.
Among Thomas' successful hires since taking over the reins at Cincinnati in 2005 was Brian Kelly, the football coach who won two Big East championships before moving to Notre Dame.
Thomas said Illinois has great facilities and a great base to build the athletics program on.
"We are in the Big Ten, we're in the Big Ten to win championships, and we're in the Big Ten to graduate our students," Thomas, who wore an orange and blue tie, said at a news conference.
He said he expects to begin work before the opening game of the football season, at home against Arkansas State on Sept. 3.
Thomas was hired just a week after the university selected a new leader for its flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign. New chancellor Phyllis Wise, who won't officially begin work until October, introduced Thomas.
"We've been able to find and recruit someone who cares about athletics within the context of an excellent research university," said Wise, who is leaving the provost job at the University of Washington. "He's been at the University of Cincinnati since 2005, and in that short time has been able to truly convert that program into one of stellar success."
Besides Cincinnati's recent football success, the Bearcats also have had some lately in the basketball program. Thomas hired men's basketball coach Mick Cronin, who led the team to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2005.
Under Thomas, Cincinnati's athletics program also raised $70 million from donors.
At Illinois, one of his first tasks will be to take on the planned renovation of the Assembly Hall, the 48-year-old basketball arena. University president Michael Hogan said Wednesday that an architectural firm has been hired to study the costs of a project the university hopes to start in 2013.
Thomas will be paid $475,000 a year, plus another $100,000 a year in deferred compensation that he would receive if he stays on the job five years, university spokesman Tom Hardy said. Other incentives, likely to be based on on-field performance, fund-raising and other factors, are still being worked out.
Thomas took over in the aftermath of the firing of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins over NCAA rules violations and other trouble at the university.
Thomas was previously the AD at Akron. He is a graduate of Colorado State University and Western Illinois University.
The 65-year-old Guenther retired in June as the Big Ten's longest-serving athletics director
Guenther was hired to stabilize an ethically and financially troubled sports program and left behind one that is considered to be on good monetary footing and, aside from difficulties over the now-retired Chief Illiniwek mascot, hasn't faced serious NCAA scrutiny in years. Illinois also has a newly expanded and upgraded football stadium.
But some fans also complain that Guenther's tenure included inconsistent performance in men's basketball. The team made the 2005 NCAA title game but has missed the tournament altogether in two of the five seasons since.
He also drew criticism for his loyalty to coaches. He kept football coach Ron Zook on after back-to-back losing seasons despite some fan protest, and he has defended basketball coach Bruce Weber against complaints from some that his teams haven't been good enough for the Big Ten.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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