Illinois had to fire Tim Beckman, but that doesn't make the timing less shocking
It’s the word Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas used Friday to describe the timing of the firing of football coach Tim Beckman. It’s a massive understatement, both as it applies to when Beckman was dismissed—seven days before the Fighting Illini’s season opener against Kent State—and why—with cause, as Thomas cited preliminary results of an external review into allegations of abuse involving the program.
Thomas said in a statement that he learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and pressure players to avoid or postpone medical treatment to continue playing through injuries. He also said some student-athletes were treated inappropriately in regards to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren’t on the team.
The charges cited against Beckman on Friday match closely what former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic alleged in May when he accused Beckman of forcing him to play through injuries and of “abuse and misuse of power.”
Given what Thomas learned, he had no choice but to oust Beckman before his fourth season in charge of the Illini. Still, that doesn't make the timing of the dismissal any less shocking. Even Beckman seemed to be caught completely off-guard, as he posted a (likely pre-scheduled) tweet advertising next Friday’s game just over an hour before word of his firing leaked.
The Illini are fortunate to have a coordinator with ample coaching experience, as offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will take over the team on an interim basis. He coached Western Michigan for eight seasons, going 51–47 with the Broncos, including three bowl appearances, their first postseason games since 1988.
Still, nothing could prepare Cubit for the situation now facing him. In fact, there may be no precedent at all. Coaching changes anytime after the spring typically are the result of unforeseen events. Cubit’s rival, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, took over the Wildcats on short notice after Randy Walker’s death in 2006, but he still had nearly two months to prepare following his promotion on July 7. In a closer analogy to Illinois, when Jim Tressel shockingly resigned at Ohio State in 2011 amid a scandal over lying to the NCAA, his interim replacement, Luke Fickell, assumed head coaching duties on May 30.
The mere presence of a scandal around Beckman that Cvijanovich’s allegations created loomed large and put him on many hot seat lists entering this season. This isn't the first time Beckman’s image and that of the program he oversaw has been damaged. Even before coaching his first game in Champaign, Beckman ruffled feathers when he sent assistants to Penn State to recruit Nittany Lions players after the NCAA announced it would allow those players to transfer without having to sit out a year following sanctions imposed on Penn State due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Beckman again caught flack when he asked the media to be “more positive” in its coverage of Illinois in February to help “build this thing into a championship.”
Still, on the field the Illini had improved over the course of Beckman’s tenure—from two wins in his debut season in 2012 to six last year, with a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Illinois’s offense returns some key pieces this year, including quarterback Wes Lunt and running back Josh Ferguson. The primary question about Beckman’s future seemed to be whether he could win enough to make the cloud over his head disappear. That’s difficult for any coach to do, but Illinois at the very least appeared to be moving in the right direction.
Of course, the unspoken caveat to such conjecture about Beckman was that nothing further would come of Cvijanovich’s claims of abuse. Now those claims appear to have been validated, and no amount of winning can undo the tarnish. Beckman won’t even get a chance.