By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Every so often on the campus of the University of Illinois, seemingly no matter the coach or the era, you’ll see T-shirts pop up bearing the slogan, “Champaign: A Drinking Town with a Football Problem.”
Sadly enough for Illini fans, that adage, as tongue in cheek as it may be, does ring true for what’s by far the most underachieving program in the Big Ten. And for anyone who watched Louisiana Tech humiliate Illinois – and first-year football coach Tim Beckman – 52-24 on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, it’s crystal clear that right now Illinois indeed has a problem.
But the truth is, it goes well beyond football.
And this deeper dilemma affecting U. of I. athletics is so discouraging that after reading this column, you very well may be driven to drink yourself.
If so, remember to tweet responsibly.
Ever since last winter when Tim Beckman held his introductory press conference in Champaign, I’ve had my doubts about the Illini’s new coach by way of Toledo. During his opening remarks, Beckman did manage to pronounce the state’s name correctly (unlike his predecessor Ron Zook, who called it “Illinoise.”) But Beckman also turned things toward the weird by shouting to reporters about how he’ll feed his players his wife’s “LASAGNA!” on Thursday nights.
In fact, that was the most memorable thing that Beckman said.
That day, I wanted to think positively about Beckman – and his enthusiasm, even if it was eccentric. But in the back of my mind, I already had concerns about whether he really was suited for the bright lights of the Big Ten. After all, I can’t imagine Urban Meyer hollering about “RIGATONI” during his first opportunity to address – and impress – Buckeye fans.
This summer, Beckman simultaneously dampened my enthusiasm about his tenure and elevated my concerns about his ability to lead a major college program when he inexplicably sent eight – eight! – coaches to Penn State’s campus to recruit Nittany Lions players in the immediate wake of PSU’s NCAA sanctions and ugly Jerry Sandusky scandal.
In my eyes, that decision by Beckman was a major tactical misstep and smacked of a mid-major coach who misjudged how diving so aggressively into PSU’s mess would muddy up the Illini’s reputation.
Certainly, a Big Ten coach has to manage his roster, but he has to manage his program’s image, as well. Beckman missed badly on the latter while attempting to tackle the former. His error in judgment worried me.
All of that led us to this season when during actual football games against solid competition worries only multiplied exponentially. While being outscored 97-38 by ASU and Louisiana Tech, Beckman has shown himself to be overmatched, outwitted and unprepared to coach big-time football.
I wish I felt like I was being too harsh with those statements. And I wish that I felt brighter days were on the horizon for Beckman & Co. Maybe I am and maybe they are, but unfortunately I really just don’t think so.
Beckman, to me, feels like Ron Zook Lite, giving us all the incompetence with half the amusement. Like Zook, Beckman has already gone for a two-point conversion in the first quarter (don’t ever do that). Like Zook, he’s sounded lost when trying to explain an ugly defeat (After the embarrassing 45-14 Arizona State loss, Beckman said the team practiced “as best as we could.”). And Like Zook, his special teams and quarterback management has been bad (the old saying goes, if you have two quarterbacks that means you have no quarterback. So what does it say when Illinois plays three of them?)
Unlike Zook, and Ron Turner before him, Beckman, however, did not inherit a team completely devoid of talent. This Illini squad returned a bevy of starting defenders – including several deemed NFL-caliber – as well as a three-year starter at quarterback, who had already won two bowl games.
The Illini cupboard was not bare. But Illinois already has been stripped naked twice this season, and the Big Ten slate hasn’t even started yet.
The concern here is that if Illinois does not make a bowl game this season – a tall task at this point, eyeing Illinois’ performances and the rest of the schedule – what will Beckman have to sell recruits? Next year’s team already looks to be shy on talent as many top players’ eligibility expires. Beckman, new to the Big Ten, did not arrive in Champaign as a dynamo with a major-college recruiting network already established. If he can’t pitch any success, he’s almost certain to whiff on top talent.
Meanwhile, Illinois fans aren’t just disenchanted. Far worse, they’re disinterested as the attendance figures at Memorial Stadium clearly show. There seems to be slim hope of Beckman regaining the fans’ attention this season – or, perhaps, at all.
The point of all this is that Tim Beckman appears to have been a bad hire for Illinois. But the point of this column is that the deeper problem is that second-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas may be even worse.
After all, Beckman was the best coach that Thomas could hire last winter. Think about that for a second. Then ponder the way Illinois has looked vs. Arizona State and Louisiana Tech, and think about it again.
Contrary to what you might believe, Illinois is not a bad football job. And it’s a great basketball job. Nevertheless, after justifiably firing Zook and Bruce Weber last season, Thomas made Illinois’ marquee coaching jobs look positively toxic to the nation.
In football, the hottest up-and-coming coach on the market, Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, snubbed Illinois. No shame there as Sumlin went to Texas A&M. However, Thomas was unable to attract another coach with any kind of name recognition to a Big Ten program in Illinois that offers every resource that Wisconsin and Iowa offer (and, honestly, probably more). This includes an inability to lure even Butch Jones, the man whom Thomas most recently hired to coach Cincinnati football.
Eventually, Thomas settled on Beckman, a coach with a solid, but unspectacular mid-major resume whose teams have a penchant for giving up points despite his defensive background.
To me, Thomas’ inability to reel in a bigger fish than Beckman speaks volumes about the AD’s salesmanship skills and, very likely, his overall personality and popularity. Word out of Cincy earlier this year was that there’s no love lost at all with any of Thomas’ former Bearcats hires, including Brian Kelly (now at Notre Dame) and Mick Cronin (Cincinnati’s current basketball coach) – two men who got their shot at big-time coaching from Thomas. In fact, I heard from connected sources that many coaches at Cincinnati were downright thrilled when Thomas left for the AD job in Champaign.
When it comes to Thomas’ credentials, don’t think for a moment that Illinois hired its No. 1 athletic director target when it plucked him from U of C. With the tumultuous state of the Illinois academic administration during the past few years – a direct cause of why the school’s U.S. News ranking has dropped from around No. 40 to No. 46 – it’s almost a guarantee that the nation’s most desirable AD candidates eyeballed the instability at U. of I. after Ron Guenther retired and decided to take a pass on the job.
This past spring, when Thomas stepped up to the plate again and launched his search to find a basketball coach to replace Weber, he went on to stub his toe badly – and repeatedly – before finally settling on Ohio’s John Groce.
Considering the strong recruiting start that Groce has gotten off to at Illinois, Thomas may very well have ended up with a gem in his hoops coach. But it wasn’t as if Thomas identified him from the get-go. At best, Groce was his third choice behind VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens. I had no problem with Thomas pursuing Smart, who was a red-hot name and appeared to be the perfect fit to become the first African-American men’s basketball coach at Illinois.
But when Smart said no, Thomas was foolish to chase Stevens who showed no indication of wanting to leave Indianapolis for Champaign. That pursuit and ultimate rejection made Illinois the laughingstock of the nation last spring. That was painful for Illini fans always proud of their hoops tradition. Quite simply, Thomas should have tabbed the interested Groce as his No. 2 man after Smart instead of chasing a coach in Stevens who didn’t want to be caught.
The hope across Illini Nation – and, surely, in Thomas’ office – is that Groce will turn out to be the home-run hire that will energize the fan base and stabilize the AD’s job. However, in spite of the buzz that Groce is generating, it must be pointed out that he’s yet to coach a game.
We don’t really know if he’s any good.
Beckman, on the other hand, I believe we already have a pretty good idea about that. Sadly enough. And I fear that we also already know the same about Mike Thomas’ abilities as athletic director.
As a final note, keep in mind that Michael Hogan, the Illinois president who hired Thomas is no longer the president at Illinois. If things don’t turn around quickly for Illini football – in terms of both wins and ticket sales – don’t be stunned if both Beckman and Thomas follow Hogan out of U. of I.’s maddeningly revolving door.
Sooner rather than far later. Yes, the problems at Illinois are that big.
And until further notice, they’re not getting smaller.
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.