WIth so many moves so quickly, Thomas reshapes Illinois athletic department and creates enough homework to be graded soon.

 

Not making a move is just like making a move, said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas Friday, moments after announcing his decision to fire nine-year Illini basketball coach Bruce Weber.

For every action, or inaction, there's a reaction, and Thomas would have been judged either way the day after the Illini basketball regular season came to an end.

"It's the part of my job that I don't like,'' Thomas said, surrounded by media. "I enjoy coming to work everyday, some less so than others. Today was one of those days.''

In the midst of reshaping the athletic department in his first year on the job, Thomas already removed Illinois' three highest paid coaches. After hiring Tim Beckman as Ron Zook's replacement in football, Thomas is in charge of filling vacancies created from the dismissals of Weber and women's basketball coach Jolette Law.

Such rapid turnover develops enough of a foot print for Thomas to have a performance review from the administration, plus the boosters and ticket buyers who pay much of the bills. 

Thus, the incubation period will be a short one for Thomas.

"I don't think people judge coaches on the first couple years on the job,'' Thomas said. "(Making a change) kind of puts you out there. It also might push you out there if you didn't make those decisions.

"It's not about me. It's about our student-athletes. I do what's in the best interest of that. It falls under my job description.''

Thomas worked down a list on a football hire before reaching Beckman, in part because Illini football isn't attractive as the basketball program. This hire becomes a signature moment in Thomas' reign, the first real chance to affect the school's flagship team.

Football always creates more revenue, but basketball is the lead act with the Illini. Thomas may not have moved the needle much with Beckman's hire, so he's got everyone's attention with his work in replacing Weber.

Thomas opened his wallet to pay off Weber ($3.9 million), former football coach Ron Zook ($2.6 million) and Law ($62,000), pushing the total to $7.1 million.

The buyouts were paid with athletic department funds, Thomas said, and he received no aid from the university. Most likely, it's money saved during the tenure of former athletic director Ron Guenther.

With Illinois looking at $150 million to overhaul Assembly Hall, Thomas wants to benefit from building excitement through the success of a coaching change -- or the hope it provides.

"It's important we have momentum for the Assembly Hall project,'' Thomas said. "People need to be excited about Assembly Hall. That's people at all levels, whether it's the people buying single-game tickets, the season ticket holders or people who support in generous ways or the corporate community.

"It's important we have a spark, that we have some energy as we transition into that phase and try to get the project off the ground.''

The hot name is VCU coach Shaka Smart, the darling of the NCAA bracket last season after leading the mid-major Rams to the Final Four last season. Smart guided VCU back to the NCAA Tournament this season, so he likely won't be available for direct negotiation until next weekend, at the earliest.

His full-court pressing style has rarely been tried in the Big Ten. Only Iowa committed to a full-court pressing style for the long term, under coach Tom Davis more than a decade ago. Will it work in the bump-and-grind Big Ten?

"There are a lot of ways to be successful,'' Thomas said. "There are a lot of people out there proving that.''

Attracting Smart, or any other seated coach, will take more than the $1.5 million the Illini paid Weber. Coaches also like perks such as bonuses and a private jet dedicated to his needs. Facilities are also high on the list.

"If the program wants to be one of the elite, premier jobs in the country, it has to commit itself to doing so in both pay for the head coach and assistants, perks and the recources available,'' said recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen.

Illinois would be closer to a top 15 job nationally if it would pay between $2.25 million and $2.5 million, Henricksen said.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

      By JOHN SUPINIE GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE CHAMPAIGN -- On Selection Sunday, the Illinois basketball team will accept a bid to the NIT, a school spokesman confirmed Saturday to refute speculation otherwise.

Former Illini forward Mike Davis stirred it up Saturday, tweeting "So my Illini boys turned down the NIT! I would of too if I had that chance my junior year! Super weak!''

A source inside the program said the team voted against playing in the NIT Friday after the firing of coach Bruce Weber.

The 32-team NIT bracket is released at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. NIT bracketology isn't as precise as its NCAA brother, but Illinois is anywhere from a No. 6 seed to off the board, depending on the projection.

According to team spokesman Kent Brown, declining an NIT berth isn't an option because it falls under the umbrella of the NCAA. Illinois can't host first- or third-round games because of scheduling conflicts in Assembly Hall.

"If invited, Illinois will play,'' Brown said.

Brown also confirmed the six-man freshman class met with athletic director Mike Thomas Friday morning after learning of Weber's status. The freshmen told Thomas they were committed to the program, Brown said.

  John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.