Horizon League Basketball

Cleveland State Throws a Curve, Tabs Mike Thomas as AD

In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly!

Nearly two weeks ago, I had touched on the retirement of Cleveland State athletic director John Parry and how the search for his replacement was relatively quiet. At the time, I, like other CSU fans, were of the opinion that the search was primarily internal and, as a result, somebody who was already in athletics would become Parry’s successor.

Given the transition to Parry from Lee Reed, which saw the former take on an interim tag before becoming the permanent AD, history and conventional wisdom, along with the deafening silence over the past three months, led us all to think an internal transition was what would happen.

However, that turned out not to be the case at all. In fact, Cleveland State has opted for an athletic director who not only had local ties but also a rather solid history in the top spot.

And that person is Mike Thomas who begins his new job on March 1.

What’s even more significant is that breaking news of a new athletic director coming down the pike didn’t come from cleveland.com, the local news or even here (though you can’t blame me for trying). The news came from The Cauldron, CSU’s student newspaper.

From all indications, Thomas is exactly what Cleveland State was looking for. Clearly the highest item on the priority list was fundraising, which, as Parry himself admitted recently in Crain’s Cleveland Business, had been a particular challenge to him.

Thomas, on the other hand, appears to be rather adept at convincing donors to fork over some serious cash. Not only does this include the $165 million he was able to raise while at Illinois, it also includes the $20 million that was raised while he was at Akron to build Infocision Stadium.

Of course, Thomas’ tenure in Champaign did end rather abruptly. Illinois, in the wake of football coach Tim Beckman’s alleged mistreatment of his players and subsequent firing (along with racial discrimination suits against both the women’s basketball and women’s soccer coaches), took a “buck stops here” approach. That, of course, was Thomas, at the end of 2015, he was bought out of his contract.

That ding on his resume notwithstanding, the item that stands out across Thomas’ career that should be of great interest to CSU fans is the coaches that he has brought in. From hiring Keith Dambrot at Akron to Mick Cronin and Brian Kelly at Cincinnati, the arrival of Thomas may very well be an omen of things to come for Cleveland State.

And that means you could very well be witnessing the beginning of the end for Gary Waters.

So even with the Vikings staring down the barrel of yet another losing season, all signs point to Waters’ services being retained for next year.

Then again, you never know. Remember that Waters arrived at CSU after being dismissed by Rutgers, immediately replacing Mike Garland.

Looking at the current landscape, the Illini faithful aren’t terribly impressed with coach John Groce, and the drumbeats for his ouster are getting louder. If that’s the case, there might be a perfect-storm scenario in which Groce, whose coaching resume includes a successful stint at Ohio, could be roaming the Cleveland State sidelines.

But obviously, that would be yet another of those crazy dreams fans who have grown weary of Waters would like to hope for. Back on planet Earth, Thomas is going to have far bigger fish to fry.

The first, as most important, will be the future of the Wolstein Center. With it becoming more and more likely that the arena doesn’t really have a future, Thomas will have to be instrumental is figuring out what CSU should be looking at in terms of facilities for its basketball teams.

Also on Thomas’ to-do list will certainly be the downward spiral that has taken place with Cleveland State’s attendance numbers. His hiring would seem to indicate that the university wants to try and tackle the serious issue it has with apathy towards athletics. Not only that, but as Parry had stated, the model of having student fees fund the athletic program isn’t really a long-term sustainable one, so other revenue streams are going to have to improve significantly.

It will certainly be interesting to see what Thomas starts working on first once he takes the helm. For CSU, the hire looks like it is wanting to make athletics more of a priority, which may not have been conveyed very well in recent years.

Email Bob at bob [dot] mcdonald [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via FightingIllini.com

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Bob has written sports, ranging from high school to college, for many years, and is the Senior Editor for basketball at Campus Pressbox. The former Cleveland State columnist at More Than a Fan: Cleveland, he co-hosts the Horizone Roundtable podcast on Fourlights.fm with Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com and co-hosted Slow Thumbs Up, a podcast that talks about the reality show Big Brother, with his wife, Jessica. He has also published a novella, Dilemma, and two novels, Flagrant Foul and The Gray Summer, which was released in April 2017.