Illinois fires coach Tim Beckman 1 week before season opener
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) A week before the start of the football season, a difficult summer for the University of Illinois became chaotic as coach Tim Beckman was fired after an investigation found he tried to influence medical decisions and pressure players to play with injuries.
Beckman's firing follows the unexpected resignations this month of the top two officials on campus, revelations that they'd used private emails accounts to avoid public scrutiny of school business, and a pair of lawsuits in which former women's basketball and women's soccer players claim they were mistreated by coaches.
And the rocky times may not be over: The investigation that led athletic director Mike Thomas - a defendant named in those lawsuits - to fire Beckman continues.
Thomas said Friday that he received some preliminary results of the investigation earlier this week, and despite timing he called ''unfortunate,'' saw enough to fire Beckman just before his fourth season started.
''I was shocked and angry when I became aware of the preliminary firings,'' Thomas said. ''Certainly that's what led to me making this decision swiftly, before the final report became due.''
In a statement Friday evening, Beckman denied any wrongdoing and hinted that he might take legal action, calling the decision to fire him ''a rush to judgment that confirms the university's bad faith.''
''I firmly deny the implications in Mike's statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players,'' Beckman said, noting that many of his players today indicated their support.
''I will vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights,'' he added.
Beckman will not receive $3.1 million remaining on the final two years of his original five-year contract, or the $743,000 buyout it includes.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who was head coach at Western Michigan from 2005-12 and the coach of Beckman's first win at Illinois in 2012, has been named interim coach. The Illini open at home against Kent State Sept. 4.
The allegations against Beckman first surfaced on May 10, Mother's Day, when former starting lineman Simon Cvijanovic claimed in a long series of messages on Twitter that the head coach and his staff had tried to shame him into playing hurt, and had misled him about medical procedures following a knee injury.
''All I can say right now is I think it's a step in the right direction,'' Cvijanovic told the AP by phone. ''It seems like there's more than just Beckman that needs to be held accountable.''
The university hired the Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet to investigate the allegations.
The university said Friday that the investigation found evidence of ''efforts to deter injury reporting,'' as well as attempts to influence medical decisions ''that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing.'' The investigation also found instances in which some players were ''treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship'' in the spring semester of their senior year.
Thomas declined to discuss specifics or say how many players were involved in either of those findings. So far, he said, no other coaches have been implicated, but he added he doesn't know how much longer the investigation will last.
Thomas said the law firm had so far interviewed more than 90 people and reviewed 200,000 documents, along with a large volume of practice and game video from Beckman's three-plus years in Champaign.
The athletic director said he had never seen or heard anything that indicated Beckman was treating players poorly.
Beckman was Thomas' first major hire after he came to Illinois from Cincinnati in 2011.
Beckman had been head coach at Toledo and replaced Ron Zook, who Thomas fired after the 2011 season.
The Illini went 12-25 under Beckman, including 2-10 in his first season and 6-7 last year, when they reached the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
A number of former and present players have supported Beckman.
''Coach Beck gave myself and a lot of guys a shot when a lot of other people didn't,'' senior linebacker Mason Monheim said Friday, adding that players learned Beckman had been fired during a meeting with Thomas.
Beyond just wins and losses, though, Beckman had several public missteps.
He was criticized for aggressively trying to recruit Penn State players after sanctions came down on the Nittany Lions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Later, he was spotted by television cameras during one game using smokeless tobacco on the sideline, a violation of NCAA rules.
And under Beckman, Illinois' attendance has continued a slide. Last year Illinois drew 41,549 a game.
The football accusations were just the first to be raised this year.
Seven former women's basketball players sued the university last month amid claims that coach Matt Bollant and some staff used race to divide the team and force out unwanted players. Bollant and current staff members have denied the allegations.
And former women's soccer player Casey Conine sued the school in June, claiming she had been improperly cleared to play after a concussion.
This month, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Thomas' boss, resigned just before the private email use was disclosed by the school. Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, the No. 2 administrator on campus, then announced his resignation.
Beckman is not the first coach to be fired for player mistreatment. Rutgers fired basketball coach Mike Rice after video became public of him screaming obscenities, pushing players and throwing basketballs at them. Texas Tech fired Mike Leach in 2009 amid accusations he mistreated a player suffering a concussion. Leach later sued.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.