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Catching up with UC's new athletic director

Mike Thomas, 45, has taken the reins as UC's athletic director. Behind Thomas is the Richard E. Lindner Center, which will house sports offices, practice gym, auditorium, ticket office and new faculty club.

Mike Thomas, 45, has taken the reins as UC's athletic director. Behind Thomas is the Richard E. Lindner Center, which will house sports offices, practice gym, auditorium, ticket office and new faculty club.

New University of Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas took over for the retiring Bob Goin Dec. 1, 2005. The former AD at Akron and assistant AD at Virginia discusses his philosophy for recruiting better student athletes, improving football attendance and moving on after basketball coach Bob Huggins' departure in August.

Interview conducted Oct. 31, 2005.

Q: What is your management style?

A: I very much have an open-door policy. I want to be very approachable, even with our student athletes. I want them to know they are always welcome.

I don't want people who are 'yes' people. I want people who can actually challenge me. I'm a very strong motivator. I don't call it TLC, I call it TRC, "Trust, Respect and Care." And I think if you do those things with your staff, you are going to have motivated people around you.

Q: What is most rewarding about college athletics?

A: The most rewarding thing to me is being a part of the lives of the student athletes. Because when I'm up on the stage on graduation day, and I see them walk across that stage and receive their diploma, that is a big deal. To see them achieve at the highest level is exciting. It is almost like watching a plant in bloom. Watching someone come in as a freshman and leave four or five years later and see how much they have grown -- athletically, academically and socially -- that's really a big deal.

Q: What's most challenging in this business?

A: No matter where I've been, you never feel like you have enough resources. People always want a bigger slice of the pie. That's all well and good, but somebody's got to go out and start baking their own pies. So it is my job to make sure we are doing those things to bring in additional revenue so we can enhance the opportunities for our student athletes.

Q: You have said that academic success and athletic success are not mutually exclusive. Why?

A: Because I've experienced it. When you have lived it, it is easy to say. I've been a part of programs that have had a high degree of success competitively, but they have also graduated their student athletes.

That starts in the recruiting process, and it is a culture that is important for your staff and coaches to buy into. Once you get those kids on your campus, you need to make sure you are doing everything you can to support them so you are seeing increased GPAs and increased graduation rates.

Q: How do you change the perception that programs can't win championships and also graduate players who are good citizens?

A: How you change that is by bringing in kids who can succeed at both athletics and academics, who are great citizens in the community. And once you've done that, then people will start to believe.

Let's face it. It is very competitive. We are all trying to recruit the best athletes, the person who is going to give us the best chance to win on the field of competition. It shouldn't be any different when we try to recruit the best students who also are the best athletes.

Maybe we are recruiting against a different type of school now. We very well may be. But I don't think it is an impossible task by any means. It is a mindset.

And I'm not sitting here saying the coaches on the current UC staff feel different from that. I haven't had these kinds of conversations with any of the coaches yet. But my sense is that most of them would welcome that opportunity, and many are probably looking in that direction already and have been for a number of years.

Q: Is there a program that you could use as a model for UC?

A: I was at UVA for seven years. That is probably one of the top two public institutions in the country. And that was a situation where we were graduating 80 to 90 percent of our student athletes every year. They won a number of national championships when I was there. Now they were mainly in Olympic sports, but we went to a bowl game every year I was there, and basketball was fairly successful, in what, for the time, was probably the toughest basketball conference in the country.

That may not be the perfect model for Cincinnati, because we are in an urban setting. I'm not sure if there is one particular model, but it might be a combination of models that make the most sense for us.

Q: The academic success of Akron's student athletes has been well documented. What made the difference in moving the needle there?

A: I restructured the whole academic services area, and I added staff. Then I did a lot of things with our physical space, including a new computer center. The final thing was putting more money into summer school and fifth-year aid, which kept kids on track to graduate.

Mike Thomas addresses the media during his introductory press conference Oct. 20. photo/Lisa Ventre

Mike Thomas addresses the media during his introductory press conference Oct. 20. Photo/Lisa Ventre

Q: Talk about the process for selecting the new basketball coach at the University of Cincinnati.

A: I really haven't put a lot of thought into it yet. We all know it is going to be quickly upon us. But once you are firm with the profile of what that coach should look like and you have an opportunity to assess the situation, there will be three or four months to do a lot of homework. At the end of the season, when you figure out where you are, there will be an opportunity to engage in conversations with a lot of the people in the basketball world who are going to be able to help in that process.

I'll probably get asked many times this season what are some of the names out there, and it just doesn't make sense to speculate.

Q: What do you say to UC fans who feel wounded by the loss of Bob Huggins?

A: We are going to have winning basketball at UC, and we are going to do things the right way. We are going to have good kids, and they are going to graduate. And when those things are apparent, people are going to be excited about our program. They are going to want to be a part of the Bearcat basketball program.

The other thing I would say is we have 17 other sports. And I would hope they would be supporters of all of our programs, not just the men's basketball program.

Q: Some say top names will not consider the basketball-coaching position for fear of being handcuffed by academic expectations.

A: I don't think we are going to be short on great candidates. We have a great facility to play in, and we are in the Big East Conference, which most people say is the best basketball conference in the country. We have got a leadership on the UC campus, including myself, that is committed to the men's basketball program, that wants to win and wants to do it the right way. I have no doubt that we will have a strong pool of candidates for that position.

Q: In terms of the Big East, Cincinnati lags in football attendance, revenue. Do you see that improving?

A: I have no doubt it is going to improve. That is going to be one of my major focuses. My first couple months on the job, I'm going to assess that very closely. We have got to get an aggressive plan together going into the '06 football season.

Q: What excites you about coming to UC?

A: UC has a proud history in college athletics. There is a really solid foundation here to work with, including the Varsity Village. You can see what has happened over 15 years on campus. You have had a physical transformation, and now you have an academic plan that parallels that.

The people here aren't complacent. They aren't content with the status quo. That's not how I'm wired, either. I'm always looking at how to improve and get better. And then when you look at the Big East opportunity, that made it just a wonderful opportunity.

Q: What type of opportunities do you see for UC's other varsity sports?

A: Any sport we sponsor, I want to compete at the highest level. Whether it is baseball, soccer or swimming, if you are competitive at the top of your conference, you will be competitive nationally. And I have a history of being at schools that excel in that way. The men's soccer team right now at the University of Akron is the No. 1 ranked Division 1 soccer team in the country.

At Virginia, we were top-25 Director's Cup finishers every year I was there and twice in the top 10. For us to be the top overall program in the Big East has to be our goal. Notre Dame has had the stranglehold on that Big East sports championship forever. Why can't that be the Bearcats? It is not going to happen overnight, but it is certainly going to be the direction that we are headed.

Q: What will Varsity Village mean to UC athletics?

A: Wow, that is going to be significant in so many ways. One of the obvious ones is the staff and the morale. I think everyone feels good about being a part of new facilities. From your recruiting end, one of the top two or three reasons that kids go to a particular school is the facilities. Varsity Village is going to do tremendous things. It is going to be a difference-maker.

Q: How difficult is it to fill Bob Goin's shoes?

A: He has just done an outstanding job here and has certainly raised the bar. I know those are going to be big shoes to fill. Some of the things that he focused on may not necessarily be my focus. You need to find out when you assess the program where the gaps are and some of those might be different than they were under Bob's tenure.

But Bob has done a great job, and he is respected nationally. And I'm one of those people that has great admiration and respect for him.

-- Compiled from an Oct. 31, 2005, interview conducted by John Bach.


View the Mike Thomas press conference

UC Athletics profile of Mike Thomas

Read the national response to Bob Huggins departure