By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When the Chicago Cubs, coming off their 104th year of championship futility topped by 101-loss cherry, probably inspire more hope and interest than your football program does, you know you have a problem.
But Mike Thomas decided to stick with Tim Beckman anyway.
On Tuesday evening, the University of Illinois’ athletic director announced on the radio in Champaign that Beckman, his handpicked coach whose inaugural 2-10 season featured everything bad but a corny laugh track, would return for an encore in 2013. Immediately afterward, Thomas could also have told radio listeners that good sections of seats are now available at Memorial Stadium.
Such was the fan reaction to Beckman’s return.
However, as bleak as things appear for an Illinois squad led by a man who’s better known for chewing tobacco and lasagna than for feasting on opponents, the truth is that Tim Beckman, as bad he might be, really isn’t the school’s true problem. He’s just a symptom.
The deeper issue at Illinois still lies with the man who brought Beckman to Champaign in the first place. And that’s, of course, Mike Thomas himself.
Two months ago when Illinois was 2-2 and fresh off a 52-24 humiliation at the hands of visiting Louisiana Tech, I published a column entitled “The Truth About Illinois Football.” In the piece, I wrote that Beckman, based upon his behavior and decision-making since his hiring as well as his team’s terrible performances, had “shown himself to be overmatched, outwitted and unprepared to coach big-time football.”
I then added that, “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.”
Some called that column premature. In the weeks since, however – after Illinois failed to win another game – many have instead called it prescient. The focus of that column, though, never really was Tim Beckman. Rather, it was targeted toward Mike Thomas.
I urged readers back then to consider how Beckman was the best coach that Thomas could hire last winter. “Think about that for a second,” I wrote. “Then ponder the way Illinois looked throughout this hapless season and, think about it again.”
Beckman, quite clearly, was a bad hire. But the concern here remains that Thomas might be even worse. Or, at the very least, that he’s unsuited to hire a coach who can lift the Illinois football program back up to a strong level. Heck, even a respectable one.
From that column in September, I theorized that “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.”
Since then, I’ve heard only more of the same types of stories from other individuals connected with the schools were Mike Thomas has served as athletic director. At the same time, I’ve also had Thomas defenders reach out and make the point that Beckman is the outlier among the hires that Thomas has made as an AD.
The track record of his Cincinnati hires, which includes current Bearcats football coach Butch Jones, absolutely does speak for itself. All strong, and Thomas appears to have also made another good hire in John Groce, who currently has the Illini basketball team off to a rip-roaring and refreshing 8-0 start.
But the issue with Thomas never has been that he can’t identify good coaching candidates. Clearly, he can. At Illinois, he identified Kevin Sumlin as his primary coaching target a year ago. Sumlin, of course, has gone on to lead Texas A&M to a banner year in the SEC.
Instead, the issue with Thomas is that he can no longer hire those top coaching candidates. At the bare minimum at Illinois, he should have been able to convince Butch Jones to leave Cincy and join him in Champaign for a big pay raise, the chance to join a far more stable conference and an opportunity to flee the in-state shadow of Ohio State. But Jones had no interest in linking up with Thomas again.
I believe the reason is because of the AD’s reputation of being difficult to work with, something that’s become common knowledge in coaching circles. As a result of that, Thomas was only able to lure two MAC coaches to the Big Ten, despite it being the wealthy conference that seemingly every school wants to get into. Coaches, one would think, would feel the same way about the league. Alas …
Also, while I feel very good about Groce, I’d feel a lot better about Thomas if the AD had tabbed Groce as his No. 1 guy from the get-go this past spring. He did not, and Illinois ran around in embarrassing circles before the Ohio coach was hired.
This week, I had a friend comment to me that, with his decision to retain Beckman for 2013, it appears that Mike Thomas is willing to go down with the football coach. I told my buddy that I didn’t think that was the case at all. Thomas surely knows that Beckman is a lemon. But I believe that AD also knows – or, perhaps, learned again this fall – that he’s unable to attract a better one. So, as a result, he’s left hoping that Beckman somehow pulls off a miracle in 2013.
This month, Thomas was left with two awful choices to pick from: Fire a coach after just one year or opt for a second year with a coach who’s unsuited for the big-time job.
Thomas has no one to blame but himself for putting himself – and Illinois – in that situation. And it’s possible that his own fate now rests in Tim Beckman’s unsteady hands. If that’s not a thought to keep a guy up at night, I don’t know what is.
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.