Wisch: Illinois Trustees Make Beckman Hire A Black-And-White Issue

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Back in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the world that he had a dream in which his children would some day live in a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character.

Today, nearly five decades after King’s famous speech, we still aren’t living in that nation. Or, at least, University of Illinois trustees Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery certainly didn’t seem to be taking up residence there last week.

That’s because, on Thursday – ironically, just three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – Oliver and Montgomery, two of three black trustees on the U. of I. board, voted against the appointment of new Illinois football coach Tim Beckman for one simple reason.

He’s white.

Just prior to the board’s vote in Chicago to approve Beckman’s $9 million five-year contract, Oliver read a statement in which he took issue with the university’s coaching search to replace Ron Zook, who was fired in November after seven years on the job.

In his statement, which was echoed by Montgomery, Oliver called it a “sad irony” that U. of I., as a leading public university, places emphasis on diversity but has never had an African-American head football or basketball coach in its history. In the Big Ten, that “dubious distinction,” Oliver said, is shared only with Nebraska and Purdue.

“African-Americans predominate these two sports,” and have made significant gains in the assistant coaching ranks and to a lesser extent head coaching ranks, the Champaign News-Gazette described Oliver as saying, before he added: “I would hope that as a university we find this shutout unacceptable.”

Now, if Oliver had simply stopped there, I’d still express disappointment with his characterization of the coaching search at Illinois and with his decision to publicly embarrass new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas who hired Beckman.

But, I also would respect that this is a free country. And everyone is entitled to the freedoms of speech and expression, which is the key reason why I’ve long been such an ardent defender of Chief Illiniwek, another race-related issue that has long stirred strong emotions in Champaign.

Making a public statement, even a misguided one, is absolutely Oliver’s right. But what isn’t right is then following up that statement with a vote against a man simply because of the color of his skin.

Nevertheless, that’s precisely what Oliver and Montgomery did when they cast “nay” votes regarding Beckman’s contract. With those votes, the two trustees went beyond a simple expression of opinion about something that can reasonably be considered overdue and instead made it a point to effectively state that they didn’t welcome Beckman at the University of Illinois because he’s not like them.

His skin is the wrong color.

Tim Beckman deserved better than that. Mike Thomas did, too. And, quite frankly, so does everyone else associated with the University of Illinois, which again is sadly being misrepresented as a place that’s insensitive – or even hostile – toward minorities.

The facts in this case clearly indicate otherwise. Yes, it is true that Illinois is yet to hire an African-American as the head coach of either its football or men’s basketball programs and is one of just 11 schools in the six major conferences to have not done so.

However, Oliver himself acknowledged that two black coaches were interviewed for the Illinois football job in former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin and U. of I. graduate Kirby Wilson, the running backs coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who last month was badly injured in a house fire.

Multiple outlets have confirmed that before Beckman was hired, Thomas first offered the job to Sumlin, which he turned down to accept the same position at Texas A&M. The contract that Illinois presented to Sumlin has been rumored as high as $3 million a year, yet Oliver said last week, “We have to increase our effort. Making an opening offer for a hot African-American coaching prospect is not enough.”

Beckman, by the way, will make $1.8 million a year. Before him, Zook earned $1.75 million annually.

What Oliver also failed to acknowledge last week is that after Beckman accepted the Illinois job, the school has since gone on to hire an African-American defensive coordinator in Cincinnati’s Tim Banks, an African-American co-offensive coordinator in Vanderbilt’s Chris Beatty and a Hispanic co-offensive coordinator in LSU’s Billy Gonzales. That means that three of the top four figures in the Illini football program are minorities.

Now, race, as everyone knows, is a touchy, hot-button topic. But if someone chooses to touch that hot button in a situation such as this one in Champaign, he or she has to be fair and respect all the facts regarding the issue. The topic deserves nothing less than that.

But Oliver didn’t do that. Rather, he instead picked and chose the facts that he wanted to use to suit his stance, and then decided to simply ignore the rest.

That’s irresponsible, because the issue of Tim Beckman’s hiring in Champaign not only isn’t as simple as Lawrence Oliver tried to make it be, it’s also not so black and white.

davewisch Wisch: Illinois Trustees Make Beckman Hire A Black And White Issue

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • zuedude1

    is it not amazing how some of the biggest racists are not white??

  • Percy

    Dave, based on the information you presented, I totally agree with you. It’s sad to see anyone trying to hinder another person from succeeding because of their race. You would think Oliver and Montgomery would realize the very thing they were concerned about is exactly what they did. If Sumlin would have accepted the job this wouldn’t have been an issue but he didn’t and it’s the universities job to find the next best fit for the position and university (reguardless of color). Then Beckman brings four quality minority coaches with him. So there is no substance for their arguement. I think Oliver and Montgomery should apoligize to the board. Not for their opinion, but for the hypocritical voting that was just as racist as anything they were complaining about.

  • Markie Maypo

    Jessie Jackson would give this man a medal if he could lol

    It disgusts me that this seems to happen on almost a weekly basis anymore. Some black athlete, sportswriter, or coach citing race as the reason for why his poor performance was reprimanded. Truly sickening.

    I know that there are PLENTY of white racists still around, but we stuffed them in Georgia and Alabama and forgot they existed.

  • DubaDubya

    Trustees notifying Beckman he got the job:
    ‘Congratulations Coach! All of us glad to have you….Well, almost all of us. Trustees Oliver and Montgomery voted against hiring you. Apparently they feel you’re too white.”

  • Josh

    He’s already been hired. He was the white man for the job. There’s no turning black now.

  • Nazey

    Ho hum, another predictable and remedial article exploring race relations in our country. Dave, you’re a better writer than this to pontificate the issue of race in sports in such a non-thought provoking way. I think you’ve completely missed the point of the Trustees’ concerns. I’m not saying I’m 100% on board with their reasoning, but there is more going on here than a white coach being hired. Come on, Dave, how much thought really went into this editorial?

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Well, Nazey, I’d say plenty of thought went it to it. But if you want to elaborate on your own thoughts that you feel provoke more than mine, you’re certainly entitled to do so here.

      As I stated, the trustees did not come close to acknowledging the full scope of the situation at the University of Illinois, which not only offered perhaps as much as $3M a year (and, according to reports in this week’s Champaign News-Gazette, definitely more than the $1.8M Beckman received) in an attempt to hire an African-American head football coach, but also has had an African-American head women’s basketball coach for several years. Illinois is also the Big Ten leader in minorities among major football and basketball assistants with the three football coordinators (Beatty, Banks and Gonzales) mentioned in my column, as well as an Associate Head Basketball Coach (Wayne McClain) and the basketball team’s lead recruiting assistant (Jerrance Howard) who are both African-American.

      If the trustees are upset with anyone in this situation, it ought to be Kevin Sumlin for turning down an excellent offer from Illinois. It’s ridiculous to claim that Thomas did not make a serious attempt to hire an African-American as the school’s head football coach. But Thomas can’t force a guy to take the job.

      As Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate pointed out in his column yesterday, though, the purpose of Oliver’s and Montgomery’s actions is most likely not even related to Beckman and is instead a manner in which to be begin the application of pressure on the university to hire an African-American as the next basketball coach if Bruce Weber ultimately is fired.

      Now, those tactics also don’t sit well with me, either, as Illinois should always be in the business of hiring, for all sports, the best coaching candidates available, regardless of their race. If that No. 1 candidate is African-American, fantastic. But if he’s not, then that No. 1 candidate shouldn’t be already eliminated for consideration because he doesn’t fit that criteria.

      Beyond all of that, if laying the groundwork for a desired future coaching hire indeed was the intent behind Oliver’s and Montgomery’s votes against Beckman, then that makes what they did all the worse. Because, that would be attempting to use Tim Beckman man as a political tool to further an agenda that has absolutely nothing to do with him. And that’s shameful.

      As I wrote, the trustees had every right to voice their concerns, although I’m disappointed that they chose to do it in such a public fashion that also misconstrued the facts. I think it would been more appropriate for them to have spoken privately with Thomas. But they chose to make a spectacle, which clearly was what they were trying to do. And, OK, so they did. Again, as I wrote, that clearly is within their rights.

      But, again, my column’s main point — which does provoke thought, I believe, if you do think about it — is that after publicly expressing their concerns there was absolutely no legitimate reason to cast a “nay” vote against Tim Beckman. Go ahead and say that the vote is being made under protest, or that it’s being done with expressed concern, but don’t treat Tim Beckman as if he’s undeserving of the job or has done anything to deserve that “no” vote.

      Because voting “no” against Tim Beckman’s contract is not a “for” vote for equal rights, or whatever it was that Oliver and Montgomery may have been attempting to do. Rather, those votes were discrimination against qualified candidate solely because of the color of his skin. Plain and simple.

      And, I’m sorry, Nazey, but you may not be 100% on board with that reasoning, I’m 100% against it. There are right ways to do things and express opinions and concern and even evoke change. What Oliver and Montgomery did wasn’t it.

      • Nazey


        Thanks for letting me know I have the right to express my opinion on a blog (sarcasm ;)

        Your response to my initial comment was thought-provoking, more so than your initial column. You laid out your reasoning in a much clearer and insightful way. I’m not quite sure why you didn’t explain some of those things in your column. Your initial column simply came off to me as race-baiting. It’s not that you don’t make a perhaps valid point in the original editorial, but it’s just simply the same argument we hear over and over and over again whenever we talk about race relations in this country. That is, something along the lines of “white guy gets hired, members of the black community don’t like it, white community says race doesn’t matter, blah blah blah.” It’s the reinforcement of color-blindness in our society. We are taught not to see race and be color blind to racial differences, when in fact all that does is erase and negate someone’s racial identity and difference. And that’s my overarching concern regarding your editorial- that you’re reinforcing the idea that “race doesn’t matter” in this case. Race matters in just about everything, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly. But when a columnist as educated and eloquent as yourself simply adds another layer to the “race doesn’t matter” discussion, it only gets us further and further away from getting at the tough questions about race relations that no one wants to really address.

        For example, Jackie Robinson is typically remembered as the first African American baseball player to break baseball’s color barrier in the 20th century (Moses Fleetwood Wlalker was the first ever in 1884). What we don’t typically remember is Jackie Robinson’s public critique of Major League Baseball failing miserably at putting African Americans in positions of management and ownership. He said this at the 1972 World Series about a week before he died. Why don’t we remember this or talk about Robinson’s (many) critiques of white authority in baseball? Because it disrupts the neat, uncomplicated narrative about meritocracy in sports. That is, you are hired based on merit and nothing else (which we know isn’t always the case). So, our job, especially yours as a creator of public discourse, is to ask the tough questions and not reinforce the neat, simple mainstream narrative of “race doesn’t matter, talent does” when it comes to sports, or any aspect of life. That’s what I saw in your article.

        Perhaps the betters question would be, “Why would these trustees say that? What would make them think that U of I hasn’t made these efforts they claim have been neglected? What are the reactions from the UC community? Any reactions from the new minority assistant coaches? Etc, etc.

        Perhaps the Trustees are simply narrow-minded and race-baiting themselves. But that’s the less important issue here. So when I say your editorial was remedial and not thought provoking, I mean simply that there’s nothing new added to the discussion of race relations that we haven’t already hashed through for years whenever something like this comes up. That’s not progress as a nation- that’s stagnation.

      • J-Dubya

        Nice response Dave.

        I like how you took a strong position while acknowledging what so many choose to ignore: They are entitled to their opinions as Americans – just as much as you are entitled to yours.

        They can make a statement, and you can disagree with it.

        When we lose that, we might as well change our name to Russia.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Wow, Dave.
    Great piece.
    Is is the year 2012 in C-U???

  • http://ladyliberty1885.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-morning-links-1-27-12/ The Morning Links (1/27/12 ) | From the Desk of Lady Liberty

    […] Post-Racial Obama: Wisch: Illinois Trustees Make Beckman Hire A Black-And-White Issue | CBS Chicago […]

  • Lou Liay

    Good column Dave…you hit the nail on the head….no other University in the world puts up with the baloney that is directed at Illinois…I’ll never understand it…

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