By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Last December, while rooting about for a successor to Ron Zook, the ever-daffy football coach that he had just fired, University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas took to the Internet to address Illini Nation.
“As our search for a new head football coach moves forward, I have a strong sense of the type of coach we need to realize the potential of Illini football,” Thomas shared in his blog at Fightingllini.com.
“I intend to contact a trusted group of friends who are well respected in collegiate and professional football circles. A successful football coach at Illinois or any top-tier college program must have talents beyond the knowledge of the game, particularly for a program intent on establishing itself consistently among the Top 25 BCS programs in the country and at the top of the Big Ten. We will find this person for Illinois!”
So, as we sit here at the midway point of the 2012 season, did Thomas find this coach whose “talents go beyond knowledge of the game”? Did he find the man who will, at long last, finally “realize the potential of Illini football”?
Or did he, well, simply find Tim Beckman?
With Illinois licking its wounds at 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten following Saturday’s 31-14 thumping at Wisconsin, Beckman couldn’t be off to a much worse start in Champaign. Not, at least, for a guy who inherited 15 returning starters from a bowl-victorious team. And certainly not for someone who merely needed to show enough savviness to exceed Zook’s low coaching bar and generally be considered a first-year success.
Few fans expected Illinois to be a great team this season. It doesn’t have great overall talent. But many fans expected the Illini, at the very least, to be competitive – it absolutely does have enough talent for that. However, having been outscored 163-59 in its four losses and looking stunningly ill-prepared more often than not, Illinois has been anything but.
Most disheartening of all for Illini fans is that after seven long seasons of watching a befuddled Zook mismanage games, muck up special teams and generally look outclassed on the sidelines, his replacement – incredibly enough – has appeared to more or less be the same exact guy.
Only with a wad of chewing tobacco stuffed behind his lip.
On Monday, the embattled Thomas stood by the embattled Beckman, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’m disappointed in where we are. Our coaches, our student-athletes and our fan base are disappointed. But I have confidence Tim’s going to do great things here.”
Well, at least someone is, I suppose. Although Thomas’ job may be riding on Beckman’s, so he’s hardly going to criticize his new hire.
Two weeks ago in a column that I entitled “The Truth About Illinois Football”, I shared my strong doubts about Beckman’s readiness to coach beneath the bright lights of major college football and my even deeper concerns about Thomas’ inability as an AD to hire anyone better prepared.
Some readers called my take premature. Many others called it prescient. I’ll just call it the way I sincerely felt – and continue to feel.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve discussed my views about Illini football on radio stations, online and in person with a sizable swath of Illinois fandom. And the point of every criticism I have about the current state of my alma mater’s pigskin operation is this: Illini fans deserve better – much better.
But they also need to believe that.
From the disappointing coaching tenures of Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook, to former AD Ron Guenther’s stubborn penchant for sticking with failed coaches too long, to the current state of Illini affairs with Beckman and Thomas, Illinois football fans have been beaten down for two decades.
And during my interactions with many of them recently, I’ve seen those bruises. A large group of defeated Illini fans – far too large – seem to think that Tim Beckman was the best football coach that Illinois could hire.
I, however, don’t believe that at all. Rather, I believe Beckman was the best football coach that Mike Thomas – and his prickly reputation – could hire.
To see Illinois’ true potential that Thomas referred to in that online message to Illini fans last winter, we can look to our north where Wisconsin – despite being down this season – has risen from complete football irrelevancy to become a snarling, bare-knuckled national power.
Ponder this comparison: over the past 15 years (not including this one), the Badgers have compiled an overall record of 137-55 while Illinois has gone 70-108 – basically half the total wins with twice the total losses.
To be sure, Wisconsin is a great school with fine football facilities, but let’s be honest here: There is absolutely no logical reason – none at all – why the Badgers are a perennial national power packing a rowdy 80,000-seat stadium, while the University of Illinois is an annual also-ran where a crowd of 50,000 is considered a big one these days.
Illinois is on par with Wisconsin academically, and with the recent renovations to Memorial Stadium, it has football facilities on even footing with the top schools in the country.
Beyond that, Illinois is located in a state that’s the most populous in the Big Ten and the fifth largest in the country (Wisconsin is 20th). And, while any Big Ten school needs to recruit nationally to be a power, there undoubtedly is more high school talent within the state borders of Illinois than there is across the Cheddar Curtain in Wisconsin.
So, the question really isn’t “Why can’t Illinois be a national power?” The question is, “Why isn’t it already?”
In spite of everything that’s transpired over the past 20 lackluster years, Illini fans still need to believe that. The school of Red Grange and Dick Butkus deserves better. And it absolutely can be better – with the right leadership.
In speaking to the Sun-Times, Thomas said about Beckman: ‘‘He has strong intestinal fortitude. He inherited a situation at Toledo where they had issues. He came in and, in short order, cleaned up the program.
“We have the same expectations for him here. We’d all like to flip a switch, and it would look different tomorrow. But that’s not generally the case here or at other places.’’
Well, there’s no slower switch than the one at Illinois. As for whether Beckman can really flip it, we’ll see. But my advice to Illini fans in the meantime is to not keep yourselves in the dark about the way things are at Illinois.
Or refuse to believe that they should – and could – be much brighter.
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.