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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – If Barbara Wilson didn't understand the unhappiness of University of Illinois sports fans when she took over as interim chancellor in August, the emails that flowed to her over the next three and a half months provided an education.
Wilson took over after the abrupt exit of Phyllis Wise just three weeks before football coach Tim Beckman was fired on Aug. 28. On Nov. 9, Wilson fired athletic director Mike Thomas.
Hundreds of emails to Wilson obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Associated Press show that while a few writers gave her a virtual pat on the back and wished her well, most wanted something such as:
— To argue, before he was fired, that Thomas should go.
— To complain that interim football coach Bill Cubit shouldn't get the job permanently, or to urge that he should.
— To suggest a replacement for Beckman.
— To threaten to end their financial contributions to university sports.
"The best descriptor I can come up with for U of I right now is chaos," one alumnus wrote just after Beckman was fired, complaining about Wise's departure and a long list of campus problems. "I'm distressed to say that I am disappointed by and even ashamed of the leadership of the University at so many levels, and this is from someone who has given generously of his time and money for decades and who genuinely loves the University."
The university redacted the names of people who emailed Wilson and other administrators.
The emails show alumni, other fans and even some former players unhappy with many of the moves Wilson made, the speed at which she made them and the long-term state of the university's most visible sports. More than one writer used the word disaster.
"My sincere thanks for finally putting an end to the unmitigated disaster that Tim Beckman and Bob (sic) Thomas represented to all of the alumni like me," one alumnus wrote in a rare show of support for a Wilson decision.
Many complaints followed the Nov. 28 decision to give Cubit, who was elevated from an assistant's job to interim coach when Beckman was fired, a two-year contract to become the permanent coach.
Beckman was fired after an investigation by a law firm found he interfered in player medical decisions and pressured players to play with injuries. He has denied wrongdoing.
After Beckman was fired, Wilson heard from the parent of an unnamed football player, urging that she permanently hire Cubit.
After she did, Wilson was hit with gripes.
"Do you have any plans for the decisions that you and the administration make or are you just 'winging it' and hoping it turns out well?" one person asked. "My money and donations will continue to go to my other alma mater, the University of Notre Dame."
"We realize our efforts on behalf of OUR beloved Illinois, were wasted," a group identifying itself as former players from the 1960s through 2000s wrote, following up on an email in which they recommended a former Illinois figure whose name was redacted.
Others suggested candidates, too, including at least one apparent agent representing a "legendary" client with NFL experience.
"No doubt my client offers grand slam PR value in the state of Illinois," the agent wrote.
Neither Wilson's emails nor those of University President Timothy Killeen shed much light on how the decisions to fire Beckman and Thomas were made.
When Wilson fired Thomas, she offered little explanation, saying he had done a good job but that the university's athletic programs needed a new direction.
Most alumni who wrote regarding Thomas wanted him out. But one who wrote just after he had been fired backed the athletic director, saying a $1 million donation he had previously discussed with Wilson wouldn't happen "until I regain some confidence as to where this is all leading."
In some emails, Wilson and others strategize about how to respond to such alumni.
One emailer on Nov. 15 criticized the timing of Thomas' firing, questioning why he wasn't axed earlier so a replacement could have been hired sooner.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler suggested a response for Wilson that acknowledged "the timing for this change was not ideal."
"This is nice, Robin," Wilson wrote to Kaler. "I will send out today."