By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) On Tuesday, I wrote that the ineligibility of Penn State and Ohio State for this season’s Big Ten Championship Game opened a door in the Leaders Division for new Illinois football coach Tim Beckman.
On Wednesday, however, he walked through a different one. And it wasn’t the door I was hoping that Beckman would choose.
At Big Ten Media Days this week, much discussion swirled around the controversial topic of recruiting current Penn State players, who were who were essentially declared “free agents” by NCAA president Mark Emmert as part of PSU’s sweeping sanctions.
And Beckman found himself as the focal point of that controversy when it was revealed that on Wednesday he sent an armada of eight Illini coaches to State College to supposedly chat up just two Nittany Lions who had expressed interest in transferring to Champaign.
So, was eight enough?
Well, by my count, it was far too many.
This scandal-ridden situation at Penn State couldn’t be more complicated, more tricky or more messy for everyone involved. And that’s why I would have preferred to see Beckman not get involved, as the majority of Big Ten schools have said they’ve chosen to do.
However, if Illinois’ first-year coach decided that Penn State transfers could help his inaugural team – and with five open scholarships this season, I understand why Beckman would think that – then I do wish that he would have gone about things far differently.
Because, Tim Beckman mishandled this one.
To his credit, Beckman on Thursday did proactively address the hot topic, explaining to the media: “I want everyone to understand about the PSU situation. As a staff, we talked about this situation, and it was brought to our attention that two individuals were interested even before sanctions were announced. We did not go after them. They came to us. We followed NCAA rules, and we provided names to Penn State’s compliance office so they’d be aware before we got there.
“We were in State College but not on campus. We went to two establishments outside campus, where two individuals (athletes) were called to see if they wanted to come by.”
To be clear, if PSU players did indeed initiate contact with Illinois about transferring, then I have no problem with Beckman speaking to them or accepting their transfers. After all, if a Nittany Lion wants off the sinking ship that is Penn State, then they absolutely should have the opportunity to do so. He’s not a rat.
But if chatting to just two players was all the Illini were doing on Wednesday, then I’m having a difficult time understanding why Beckman felt the need to send eight coaches to State College. That’s not just overkill. To outsiders, it looks like an invasion. Perhaps it was.
Either way, I don’t think it was the wisest manner in which to introduce yourself to your new conference. On Thursday, Penn State’s Michael Mauti made it pretty clear that he feels the same way.
At Media Days, the senior linebacker said about Beckman: “I don’t want to make a feuding thing, but at the same time, if you’re from our conference and you’re going to try to steal our players and wish us well, then I have a serious problem with that.”
Mauti also rebutted Beckman’s claim that Illinois coaches only set up camp at a local Denny’s and were only following up with players who had contacted the Illini staff prior to Wednesday.
“They weren’t hounding me personally, but I know for a fact that they reached out to our players,” Mauti said. “And I know for a fact that they were in and around our football area.”
When informed of Mauti’s comments, Beckman defended himself by telling CBSChicago.com’s Adam Hoge: “It’s tough. For the student-athletes, again, I’m just going to commit and say that we didn’t do anything that were told that we weren’t supposed to do.
“I was trying to do what was best for our program at that time. I believe in the student-athletes and we also have student-athletes at our program that want to win too and I was just trying to make sure that I was giving everyone fair opportunity to do what was best for them and for them to make a decision.”
To be sure, what Beckman did by sending his coaches to State College was not against any rules. And Illinois AD Mike Thomas did alert Penn State that Illinois coaches would be in town. But, sometimes, it isn’t simply about not doing “anything that you were told you weren’t supposed to do.” It’s about doing what’s right.
And, to me, chasing players around Penn State’s campus – or even appearing to have done that – wasn’t what was right in this messy situation that’s filled with far more land mines than it is fireworks.
As his career at Illinois goes forward, I’m all for Tim Beckman making enemies in the Big Ten. But I’d rather that he do it on the football field – and not while sitting inside a State College Denny’s.
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.