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Illinois AD Mike Thomas programmed to fail

Mike Thomas talks reporters after being named Illinois' new athletic director Champaign August 2011. | AP

Mike Thomas talks to reporters after being named Illinois' new athletic director in Champaign in August 2011. | AP

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Updated: April 23, 2012 11:44AM

Right now, the best thing Mike Thomas has going for him is his plain name. A guy named “Mike Thomas’’ can put down a credit card at a 7-Eleven in Illinois and most likely not have the clerk say, “Are you the Mike Thomas who failed to get Shaka Smart?’’

But if that were to happen, Thomas could reply, “You must have me confused with the Mike Thomas who whiffed several times before hiring a relatively obscure football coach.’’

To say Thomas is off to a bad start as Illinois’ athletic director is like saying “John Carter’’ is off to a bad start at the box office.

There was one basketball coach Thomas absolutely had to get: Smart. The Virginia Commonwealth coach is African American, sharp and successful, which seemingly are the only criteria involved in Illinois’ search. Money wasn’t going to be the issue. Smart said no anyway.

Now, there’s little a manager can do to make a candidate take a job if said candidate doesn’t want it. Wednesday’s development backs up my contention that the Illinois job isn’t what its most ardent supporters make it out to be. When a coach from the Colonial Athletic Association turns down a Big Ten program, it means that Illinois is a lot closer to Penn State than Michigan State in terms of basketball prestige.

Thomas ran into the same thing while trying to replace Ron Zook, the football coach he had fired. He wanted Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, but Sumlin took the Texas A&M job instead. After a series of rejections, locked doors and scavenger hunts, Thomas finally found Toledo coach Tim Beckman.

But that was football. Illinois leans toward a round, orange ball the way a flower leans toward the sun, so it followed that the Illini should be able to get a hot coach from a mid-major school. Was that asking so much? Hiring Smart would begin the process of restoring Illinois to what it considered to be its proper place.

Or not.

The names that are mentioned as Plan B, Alabama’s Anthony Grant among them, wouldn’t even enthuse the Anthony Grant Fan Club. If we’ve learned anything about college basketball, it’s that it’s all about the coach. A dynamic coach drives everything, especially recruiting. That’s why Smart was so important to the Illini. He would have enthused the fan base and likely gained a foothold into recruiting Chicago.

For years, we’ve listened to the indignation of Chicago Public League proponents who believe Illinois’ clumsiness in recruiting the city is the reason the school’s basketball program is something less than it should be.

But guess what? The word is that Smart wanted nothing to do with what is perceived as the shady dealings of the Public League.

The perception, fair or not, is that players, parents, hangers-on, coaches, street agents, etc., have their hands out when college coaches come calling in Chicago. If Smart is of that opinion — and he’s not talking right now — then perhaps the notion of U of I as the country bumpkin lost in the big city needs to be revisited. If it’s too greasy for Smart, who is African American and has recruited lots of black players, then maybe the problem isn’t just the Illini’s. Maybe it’s Chicago’s, too.

“That’s just like [Russian president Vladimir] Putin associating Chicago with Al Capone,’’ said Von Steuben coach Vince Carter, the president of the CPL Coaches Association. “Some old perceptions die hard.’’

Maybe so, but by all accounts, former coach Bruce Weber didn’t want to rappel down into the pit of Public League recruiting, either. Some would call that attitude naïve. Everyone plays the game, the thinking goes; people get paid. Shrug. Colleges make millions of dollars off the backs of football and basketball stars, most of them black, and the players get nothing more than free tuition in return.

But rules are rules, and the NCAA has a lot of them. It tends to look down on uncles who think of their high school nephews as paydays.

Weber still has scorch marks from the abuse he took for not landing Derrick Rose out of Simeon in 2007. But trouble followed Rose to Memphis, and it led to the school vacating a 38-victory season and a trip to the NCAA title game.

So here sits a guy named Mike Thomas, who after seven months in the job must be wondering what he has gotten himself into. He needs a new coach, he needs Chicago and he could use a fallout shelter for protection. A new identity isn’t necessary. Yet.

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