On Friday, Illinoisfired Tim Beckman as football coach, one week before the football season begins. Such is the state of catastrophe in Champaign that this amounted to throwing a flaming tire on a much larger pile of flaming tires. The school’s chancellor resigned in early August in the face of an email scandal. The school’s provost followed suit earlier this week. The athletic department now has investigated two programs, football and women’s basketball, after allegations of improper treatment of athletes. Both of the head coaches involved in those inquiries were hired by the current athletic director, who whacked Beckman on Friday and then insisted that it was an “exciting time to be here.”
The place is a total mess, from the top on down, a fetid heap of skullduggery and incompetence befitting a state run right into the ground along the same principles. Now it must attempt to fix a football program that isn’t anywhere near the sleeping giant some contend it is, all while any worthwhile candidates might be advised to run far, far away, as fast as their loafers will take them.
No, really, though: exciting times.
But field a football team Illinois must, and for this specific endeavor things are off to the right start. A total overhaul is due, but it’s hardly complete. Beckman’s 12—25 record put him in jeopardy already; his exit was hastened when an ongoing external review determined he attempted to influence injury reports, pressured players to avoid medical treatment and “treated inappropriately” the scholarship situations of second-semester seniors. Now athletic director Mike Thomas must go as well, for many reasons, not the least of which is the unacceptable breakdown in “avenues of reporting” that led to Beckman’s behavior and dismissal—avenues he is tasked with creating, maintaining and enforcing.
“I’m confident in the program I’m leading,” Thomas said Friday, when asked if he is concerned about his own job security. “I know when you’re trying to build a program that you’re going to have obstacles and adversity along the way.”
When the adversity is self-inflicted—to proportions that would be comic if there weren’t real people suffering real effects—the slate doesn’t need to be cleaned. It needs to be shot into the sun and replaced with completely new slate.
The more pernicious issue is whether a new slate matters at all.
It’s time to stop pretending that there is untapped greatness bubbling just below the surface in Champaign. It’s time to put to rest the myth that Illinois football has everything it needs to be a Big Ten champion-caliber program, when the reality is it maybe has enough to be regularly decent.
This is a program boasting seven winning seasons in the last quarter-century. The cure, for the eternal optimists, is simply recruiting better, to mine the troves of in-state talent. That in-state talent amounts to 11 top-100 prospects in the last four recruiting classes, total, per Rivals.com rankings. There is one—one—top-100 player from Illinois in the Class of 2016. (And Darien’s Josh King is committed to Michigan State.) Put another way by a former Chicago Tribune colleague of mine, Joel Boyd: The state of Illinois has produced 11 composite four- or five-star prospects in the classes of 2015 and 2016. Louisiana, a state with one-third the population of Illinois, has 32.
In-state talent doesn’t guarantee performance (see: Texas), yet what coveted players there are don’t seem to identify with Illinois. As recently as 2014, the state had 11 four-star prospects, per Rivals. Beckman signed none of them. He and his staff indeed were recruiting that bunch uphill after winning six games in his first two seasons, which is a frightful task. But it would be easier to affix an asterisk if the results didn’t fall in line with 25 years of struggling to pull all the parts together and build a reliable winner.
Toss in the more subjective problem of being a basketball-first school—and the apathy that compounds annually when the football product is uninspiring—and, no, this actually does not seem like a great job in the first place. Now Illinois must find a savior when its infrastructure is shaken and, in some very literal ways, no one knows who can make the long-term decisions in Champaign anyway.
The only option is to gut it and hope, to bring in another athletic director with energy who will lure another coach with energy. That energy, of course, can cut many ways. One is a coach forging a connection with players, current and future, that stokes momentum the place desperately needs. Another way is a wired Beckman stammering through an explanation of the “Oskee” acronym at Big Ten media days last month, sounding like he was having an allergic reaction to the English language. So someone else will run out a new schtick this winter, and Illinois will stand by, eyes closed and fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, here comes 2015, just now visible as you rub off the layers of dysfunction with your sleeve. “Crazy times in Champaign today,” senior guard Ted Karras said Friday. “Absolutely shocked. Dumbfounded, really. But it’s the reality now.”
“The cool thing about this team,” senior running back Josh Ferguson said, “is that we have a lot of old guys that have been through this kind of thing.”
Yes, this is the cool thing about Illinois, that a student-athlete can arrive on campus, spend years having a cheese grater run across his or her spirit and build up enough resistance to shrug off the many failures of the adults in charge. Good for the school that it ran out a guy as allegedly selfish and careless as Beckman, not that it had much choice with an investigation that would be public record at some point. Beckman, for his part, issued a statement to multiple media outlets that disputed Thomas’s findings while adding that he “will vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights.” In other words, Beckman is pursuing the buyout money Illinois doesn’t think it has to pay him, which only confirms that everyone involved deserves each other.
All that’s left is to start over. Illinois isn’t necessarily doomed to fail in football, but it is doomed to try again, and by now that’s what everyone is afraid of.