Heat's already on Beckman
Thomas defended Beckman's contract, saying it's still below average in the conference.

A look at the salary increases of another former Mid-American Conference coach in the USA Today coach salary database supports Thomas' opinion. Minnesota's Jerry Kill makes three to four times his former salary at Northern Illinois and Michigan's Brady Hoke was making around three times his Ball State salary at San Diego State. He was making $675,000 there when he left for Michigan, where he made $3.3 million last season.

Kill made between $1.2 million and $1.7 million last season. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is believed to make about $1.8 million per year. Ohio State's Urban Meyer leads the Big Ten with a minimum of $4 million per year.

"I think Tim's paid a fair salary," Thomas said. "He's slotted well within the Big Ten Conference and how we benchmark that."

To get rid of Beckman would cost more money.

Beckman's buyout is two times his base pay of $400,000 for each year remaining on his contract. The agreement includes a $275,000 annual deduction from the buyout based on Beckman's "duty to mitigate damages with other income," according to his contract, which gives an example buyout. Should he be fired on Aug. 1, 2014, Beckman would be paid $1,312,500.

"As somebody who contributes to the athletic department, I don't like the fact they spent a fortune buying coaches out and paying unproven coaches big sums of money," said Steve Bowsher, a Prospect Heights businessman and major contributor to the university and athletic department. "It doesn't seem fiscally responsible to me. … Maybe we're in a position we can afford it."

If so, the concern is whether Illinois can hold that position.

The Illini have had trouble filling the 60,670 seats at Memorial Stadium. Average attendance is down to 45,521 this year, on pace for the worst attendance since 2006, an issue Thomas said earlier this year that only winning can fix. The numbers are a concern not only because of lost revenue from ticket sales but also dwindling fan support.

Bowsher represents a cross-section of the disgruntled fan base — high-profile donors whose discontentment begins with Thomas.

From the top

Bowsher and two other donors, whose aggregate contributions are estimated to total more than $1 million, told the Tribune they planned to stop contributing beyond current commitments until a change was made at athletic director.

Loss of financial support would come at a bad time for Illinois as it tries to raise funds for its Assembly Hall renovation project. Thomas said he didn't believe many donors had cut ties and hasn't had conversations with any who have.

"My university has been hijacked by a bunch of outsiders. I am absolutely furious," one of the big donors said. "I am absolutely finished. The checkbook is sealed. I am done.

"I don't know anyone who's excited or enamored with this current AD and the direction he is taking this administration. This isn't about Tim Beckman to me. … I don't fault Tim Beckman for taking the job. It's obviously a terrific opportunity for him."

Bowsher is an Illinois alum who said he has been contributing time and money to the university for more than 20 years. His issues stretch well beyond the athletic department to the university board of trustees and former President Michael Hogan, but his experiences with Thomas have left him questioning his leadership ability.

"I don't think Mike Thomas is capable in any fashion," Bowsher said. "He's extremely weak from a personality standpoint. I don't see anything there that would tell me we would have success with him as athletic director."

Therein could lie the second problem to firing Beckman early: Attracting a suitable replacement.

Thomas' handling of the coaching changes didn't sit well with everyone. Former assistant football coaches had contract disputes with the university leading up to Illinois' bowl game last season. (The contracts were drawn up under former athletic director Ron Guenther.) Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo publicly denounced Thomas' lack of support for Weber during the men's basketball season.

Firing the first-year football coach he hand-picked would be inconceivable because of the damage it would do to Thomas' reputation, one source said. Doing so would give Thomas three head football coaches in three years.