By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Since midway through Ron Zook’s final season, the University of Illinois football team has enjoyed about as much good news as it’s enjoyed victories.
In other words, next to none.
But on Monday, the moribund Illini program got its biggest win in quite some time when rocket-armed Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt announced that he was transferring from Stillwater to Champaign, located just 90 minutes from where he grew up as a two-time state football champ in Rochester, Ill.
“I’ve always just loved Illinois. I grew up a huge fan,” Lunt told reporters on Monday, saying all the right things about the college that he didn’t pick out of high school – even if they weren’t really true. “I like the coaches – great enthusiasm, very passionate. I could see that when they were recruiting me.”
Like Zook before him, current Illini coach Tim Beckman doesn’t lack in the enthusiasm and passion departments. Rather, like Zook, it’s the coaching department where Beckman fell short during last season’s disastrous 2-10 campaign.
With Lunt now officially an Illini, however, Beckman has in his program a quarterback who’s probably Illinois’ best – on paper, at least – since former pro Kurt Kittner. But the looming question hanging above Lunt’s transfer is will Beckman ever get a chance to actually coach the QB in a real game?
After all, Lunt doesn’t become eligible until the 2014 season. And if Beckman’s Illini don’t show progress after last year’s debacle – which included zero conference wins – the coach might not survive until then.
On that topic, some Illinois fans have expressed the belief this week that Lunt’s arrival in Champaign should automatically buy Beckman more time. But I don’t buy that.
For example, if Illinois goes 2-10, 0-8 again this fall – giving Beckman a 4-20, 0-16 record in two seasons after taking over a 7-win team – I can’t see how Illini AD Mike Thomas can justify bringing him back for a third season. Especially when you consider fan excitement and ticket sales. And besides, one player – not even a QB as gifted as Lunt, who threw for more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman at Oklahoma State – does not make a football program.
Now, if Beckman wins three games in 2013? That might be enough for Thomas to bring him back. If he wins four? He’ll almost surely return for an opportunity to coach Lunt in 2014.
Beckman has his chance this fall to show he deserves more time at Memorial Stadium, and we’ll see how his team fares in Year No. 2.
But a big thing to note regarding Lunt’s transfer is that his three remaining years of eligibility in Champaign also likely makes the Illini job more appealing to other coaches. And, ironically, the fact that Beckman convinced Lunt to come to Illinois could make it easier for Thomas to find Beckman’s potential replacement.
One name to follow this fall is Todd Monken, the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and Wheaton native who recruited Lunt to Stillwater. Monken was rumored as a candidate for the Illinois job before Thomas ultimately settled on Beckman. Now he’s the first-year head coach at Southern Mississippi, which was one of the schools declared off-limits by Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy as a potential transfer location for Lunt.
If it hadn’t been, Lunt very well might be a Southern Miss Eagle today instead of an lllini. Interestingly, a year from now – if Southern Miss fares well in 2013 and Illinois does not – Monken could be the Illini coach instead of the Eagles’ one.
It’s up to Beckman and Monken to settle that issue on the field this fall.
Lunt will surely be watching closely from the sidelines. And Illini fans will be from the stands.
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.