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Illinois didn't fire Bill Cubit on Monday, but it might as well have

Bill Cubit's new interim AD had lots to say Monday about the prospect of hiring a new head football coach. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Mom and Pop came out for another visit on Monday.

By which I mean the University of Illinois and its small-time athletic department, of course.

Where to start?

First, Illinois’ interim Chancellor, Barbara Wilson, announced the firing of athletic director Mike Thomas and the installment of athletic department staffer Paul Kowalczyk as interim director.

Goodness, this seemed overdue. Thomas is the very man who saw fit to hire one Timothy David Beckman as football coach. Beckman went on to repeatedly embarrass the school in an almost unimaginable variety of ways, becoming a sort of caricature-coach whose mere existence left an indelible stain on Thomas’ résumé.

Also, on Thomas’ watch, allegations abounded from athletes in multiple sports about mistreatment from coaches and insufficient care for injuries. The results of an independent investigation commissioned by the school were released on Monday, and Beckman comes off as a real sick puppy. Among other things, the disgraced coach is said to have routinely used intimidation, threats and humiliation tactics on the young men he publicly referred to as his “sons.”

Illinois sure seemed to have crystal-clear reasons to part ways with Thomas. For one thing, entrusting him to hire another football coach would’ve been to betray the loyalty — and insult the intelligence — of Illini fans. Yet Wilson went so far out of her way to praise Thomas, she managed to publicly undermine the decision to let him go.

According to Wilson, Thomas did a “great job,” violated no university policies or standards and was not implicated in any way whatsoever in the report.

Um, why was he fired again?

And then there’s Thomas’ buyout — a cool $2.5 million that will come out of the athletic department budget. Thomas takes a seat next to former coaches Ron Zook and Bruce Weber on the megabucks buyout gravy train. It seems the best job in sports is being pink-slipped by Illinois.

The closest Wilson came to giving a reason for the decision on Thomas was when she said, lamely, “We’ve just had lots of distractions.”

One of those distractions is of elephant-in-the-room proportions: Who will be Illinois’ football coach in 2016?

Wilson — who called athletics the “front porch of the university” — says that decision will be left up to Kowalczyk. Yes, an interim Chancellor just deputized an interim athletic director to decide the fate of an interim football coach, Bill Cubit.

It makes you wonder what sort of curb appeal Illinois could possibly have to prospective coaches should Cubit and his staff be jettisoned.

Cubit, by the way, has been terrific since taking over for Beckman. He is a fine coach and — unlike Beckman — a strong spokesman for the program and the university. Yet if Thomas was stained by Beckman’s wrongdoings, surely Beckman’s coaching staff was, too. And Cubit was the highest-profile, most powerful member of that staff.

Regardless, it was Kowalczyk’s intent to avoid the topic on Monday, and he did that at first when he repeated Wilson’s statement that decisions on the coaching staff will wait until the end of the season.

But then Kowalczyk cracked. Without realizing the subtext he was swimming in, he made a series of telling comments. Such as:

“I’ve been through this drill before. You can hire a football coach at the end of the season.”

And: “To me, it should be a destination job.”

And the best, or worst, of them: “There are [coaching] lists out there. There are people out there. There aren’t a lot of secrets right now.”

You don’t need me to read between those lines for you. A new football coach will be in Champaign next season. That is, if Mom and Pop can find one.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com