By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Somewhere down in Champaign, there’s a wall.
And Tim Beckman’s back is up against it.
On Wednesday, as Illinois’ beleaguered second-year coach was readying his team for this weekend’s trip to West Lafayette (or, at least, we assume he was), Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote that, “Even though the masses of Illini Nation don’t have a vote, there is a popular referendum ongoing whether Tim Beckman needs to defeat Purdue on Saturday to retain his job.”
The answer is: He doesn’t.
But if Beckman does indeed fail against the Boilermakers, then he sure as heck had better beat Northwestern at home the week after that.
Ever since Illinois football again tumbled into the abyss with the start of the Big Ten campaign – 20 consecutive losses, and perhaps counting – I’ve said that if Beckman wins just one conference game this season then I think that he’ll probably be back for a third go-round in 2014.
Now, that doesn’t mean I also think he will have earned retention with one slim victory over a Big Ten cellar dweller vs. a potential 15 league losses in two seasons, but rather that I think it’s likely athletic director Mike Thomas will retain him.
Because, Thomas, I’m quite certain, doesn’t want to fire his hand-picked coach after just two years unless he has to. But he might have to. And it’s very possible that he should.
In his column, Tate also wrote that, “From a purely philosophical standpoint, every head football coach deserves at least three years … and to be fair, four. Since Bob Zuppke started his 29-year reign in 1913, the only Illini coach limited to three seasons was Gary Moeller, who went 6-24-3 in 1977-79. Beckman is 5-17.”
Now, that opinion may be true. But Illinois also has a nearly two-decade tradition of retaining coaches at least one season too long. It happened with Lou Tepper. It happened with Ron Turner. And it happened with Ron Zook. I’m not sure that the program can afford for it to happen again with Beckman.
After all, let’s take a look at the past to see how Illinois got to where it is today. The true troubles began back in 1995 when Tepper’s fourth Fighting Illini team boasted Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy but failed to even make a bowl game. The team with the Nos. 2 and 3 picks in the NFL Draft finished 5-5-1 overall and 3-4-1 in the Big Ten.
Considering the high-level that the Illinois program had been performing at before Tepper inherited the team from John Mackovic, the smart move for athletic director Ron Guenther would have been to fire Tepper after the ’95 season. At that time, his record was a pedestrian 23-22-2 and prospects for 1996 looked bleak. However, Guenther instead gave Tepper another year and he went only 2-9, after which he was finally fired.
The cupboard was then so bare for Tepper’s replacement that Ron Turner went 0-11 in is first season in 1997. Eventually, Turner managed to lift the Illini program up to Sugar Bowl heights in 2001, but he failed to enjoy a recruiting bounce from that BCS berth.
In 2002, Turner’s Illini dropped from 10-2 to 5-7. In 2003, Illinois posted an awful 1-11 mark, including 0-8 in the Big Ten, bringing Turner more or less full circle. Again, the smart thing at that time would have been for Guenther to fire Turner. But again, the AD opted to give his coach another season. Turner, not surprisingly, went only 3-8 in 2004 and was then fired.
That, in turn, again left the program so bereft of talent that Turner’s replacement Ron Zook went only 2-9 and 2-10 in his first two seasons. In 2007, Zook then enjoyed his Rose Bowl breakthrough with a 9-4 record, but promptly saw his team devolve into a 5-7 club the following year and a 3-9 one the year after that.
Yet again, the smart thing would have been for Guenther to fire Zook after that 2009 campaign, but once more he decided to go another route by hiring a pair of expensive coordinators to hold up his rickety coach for longer than he deserved. That resulted in back-to-back 7-6 records for the Illini, but also ended with new AD Thomas firing Zook after a six-game losing streak to close out the 2011 regular season.
All of that led us to the ugly place where the Illini program sits today. Now, one could certainly make the case that every coach deserves at least three seasons, but unlike Turner and Zook, Beckman also has shown no reason strategically or on the recruiting front for us to believe that he too can eventually elevate the Illini to BCS-level heights.
I’d argue that the No. 1 reason why Illinois football is in such a disastrous state today is that because over the past two decades it has made disastrous decision after disastrous decision to keep its coach at least one year too long.
Win or lose vs. Purdue (or Northwestern), that very well could happen yet again with Beckman. But a win is the only way for the Illini’s coach to make most observers think differently.
So he’d better win.
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.