By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Twenty years ago, after compiling a sterling 30-16-1 record on the football field at that “basketball school” down in Champaign, University of Illinois coach John Mackovic bolted the Land of Lincoln for the gridiron riches of the Lone Star State.
And Fighting Illini football has never been the same.
In large part, that’s because the school hasn’t had a head football coach since then. Not really, at least. Certainly not a true one.
No, to replace Mackovic, who went on to experience a mixed bag at Texas, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther turned to Illini defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. At Illinois, Tepper’s defenses were mighty, but his offensive outputs meek. So, after five years and a 25-31-2 record, he was mercifully fired.
To remedy Illinois’ lack of scoring, Guenther then turned to an offensive coordinator in Chicago Bears assistant coach Ron Turner. His Illini teams went on to score at a rapid rate, but the NFL-minded Turner had no appetite for the college recruiting game and the number of top athletes waned. So, after eight seasons and a 35-57 record, he was mercifully fired.
To fix Illinois’ dearth of talent, Guenther then turned to a “recruiter” in Ron Zook, the recently deposed head coach at Florida. Making an early splash, Zook did upgrade the Illini’s personnel, but just as quickly showed he had little ability to manage a program – or a game clock – and so, after seven seasons and a 34-50 record, he was mercifully fired.
All of that brings us up to today, when after two decades, three failed coaches and 138 frustrating losses (an average of nearly seven a season), the Fighting Illini have finally hired a guy in Toledo’s 46-year-old Tim Beckman who appears to be a legitimate head coach and not merely a nominal one such as the eternally befuddled Zook, or an out-of-place coordinator like both Tepper and Turner so clearly were.
CBS2’s Ryan Baker reported Thursday night that Beckman would be introduced Friday and The Toledo Blade reported this morning that Beckman told his players at a 7 a.m. team meeting that he had accepted the Illinois job.
Two weeks ago in this blog, I urged new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas to first aim high in his coaching search by targeting the likes of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson, and then adjust accordingly.
In Friday’s Chicago Tribune, columnist David Haugh wrote that Thomas apparently did just that as he reportedly pursued Petersen, as well as Cincinnati’s Butch Jones and the nation’s hotshot du jour, Houston’s Kevin Sumlin.
Wednesday afternoon, my Downstate sources informed me that Sumlin-to-Illinois was nearly a done deal and an announcement could be imminent. What happened later that evening, or how close that deal was to actual fruition, is unclear.
This, however, is quite clear: Beckman is very likely a better hire than Sumlin, and Illinois fans would be wise to give the guy a chance even if he lacks that national buzz. A smaller name doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser one.
This season, Sumlin indeed racked up major hype – and big point totals – as his Houston Cougars stormed their way to a 12-0 record and a lofty national ranking. But it’s important to note that those wins came against a lineup of schools that featured only two with winning records – Louisiana Tech and Tulsa (both 8-4) – and had a paltry 55-77 mark overall.
In the Conference USA championship game last weekend, Sumlin matched wits with Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora and was outclassed as Houston lost 49-28 to the 11-2 Golden Eagles, by far the best squad the Cougars faced all year.
Beyond this season, it’s disconcerting that Sumlin has won nothing without record-setting quarterback Case Keenum running his offense. With Keenum, Sumlin’s record is an eye-popping 32-10. But without him – Keenum tore his ACL in the third game of the 2010 season and missed the rest of the year – Sumlin is just 3-7.
Unlike former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach whose Red Raiders teams piled up prolific points with a series of different quarterbacks, Sumlin is also yet to prove that it’s his offensive genius – and not simply Keenum’s arm – that’s the reason behind Houston’s success.
I don’t at all think Sumlin is worth the $3 million that Illinois reportedly offered him this week, nor do I believe he’ll be worth whatever it is that Texas A&M or another BCS conference school may ultimately pay him this month. He simply hasn’t yet earned it.
Meanwhile, Beckman, who is 21-16 in three years at Toledo, is getting his shot in Champaign. And while I can hardly guarantee that he’ll be a success, Mike Thomas has plucked his past two coaches, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, from the Mid-American Conference and both enjoyed big success at Cincinnati. And in Beckman, he picked another good one.
Last year, Beckman’s Rockets beat Purdue 31-20 and played Ohio State within 27-22 in September. For the second straight season, they’ve finished 7-1 in the MAC, with both losses coming to Northern Illinois, including a 63-60 decision this year.
For those Illini fans skeptical of hiring a coach from the MAC, I’d remind you that Woody Hayes (Miami), Ara Parseghian (Miami), Nick Saban (Toledo), Urban Meyer (Bowling Green) and Bo Schembechler (Miami) all began their careers in that conference, as well.
After seven years of watching Ron Zook mismanage play calls, clocks and extra-point opportunities, what I want to see on the sidelines in Champaign more than anything is a man with a realistic chance of outcoaching his opponent on any given Saturday.
Additionally, after 20 years of having head coaches suited for success in just one aspect of a multi-faceted game, I also want a guy who can run an entire football program.
You know, a real head coach.
Based on his background, Beckman looks as if he could be that man, although figuring out a way to keep Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning in the fold would certainly help. Beckman also has an apparent passion – and flair – for recruiting, which also bodes well.
“I think that job [Illinois] is the right job,” Dick Strahm, who coached Beckman at the University of Findlay (Ohio), told the Champaign News-Gazette on Thursday. “He will recruit at Illinois. There is no question about it. I don’t know how many of his staff he’s bringing along with him but I know they were outrecruiting everybody in the Mid-American.”
Beckman has been doing his fair share of outcoaching them, as well.
And if he can bring all of those abilities with him to Memorial Stadium, Beckman could be the head coach that gets Illinois football headed in the right direction.