By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) For the Illinois football team, .500 is an improvement.
But when it comes to retaining the program’s coordinators, is it also a victory?
With the news on Wednesday that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will be back with the team next season, Illini fans should be thrilled. That’s a win.
On the flip side, however, Cubit’s retention was countered with the perplexing – and vexing – confirmation that Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be back next season as well. That’s a loss.
And when taken together, Illini head coach Tim Beckman had better hope that that the talents of those two men don’t simply result in a wash in 2014. You know, like it did this season.
At the very least, though, fans can today celebrate Cubit and his upbeat outlook for the future of the struggling football program in Champaign. On Wednesday, after he had turned down overtures from other unnamed schools about coordinator head coaching positions, the 60-year-old former head man at Western Michigan said about Illinois: “For me, I love these kids here. I just want to be a part of turning this whole thing around. It’s what I’ve done kind of all my life. You can go out and recruit now. I think sometimes people are wondering if you’re going to be there or not. I just believe in it. I really do.”
Considering what Cubit accomplished this season, it’s easy to believe in him. Not only did he help fifth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase rebound from an awful fourth year to lead the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 272.7, he managed to elevate the Illini offense from 120th nationally in first downs per game to 25th, from 107th in passing offense to 22nd, and from 122nd to 37th in plays of 20-plus yards.
Those numbers are nothing short of miracles. And with celebrated Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt the odds-on man to fill Scheelhaase’s shoes next year along with a returning stable of running backs, linemen and tight ends along with an influx of touted junior college wide receivers, there’s good reason to believe the miracles can continue on Cubit’s side of the ball next season.
But then there’s the defense.
And considering its performance this season, it’s difficult to understand why Tim Beckman – whose own job has to be on the line after notching just one Big Ten win in 16 tries – wouldn’t choose to replace Banks as his defensive coordinator, or for that matter why athletic director Mike Thomas wouldn’t make him do so.
In two years, Banks’ defenses – of which, it should be noted, Beckman has overseen the secondary – haven’t just been poor and porous, they’ve actually gotten worse as the seasons have worn on. Based on that, the expectation among much of Illini Nation was that some kind of shake-up would happen among the coaching staff after another sorry year of football, and that Banks would be the maraca.
But Beckman chose otherwise, opting to double down on his DC and hope that another year of maturity for his players along with a few JUCO players will help Banks’ unit perform far better in ’14. It had better if Illinois hopes to reach a bowl game in Year 3, which should be the expectation that Thomas sets for Beckman & Co. Because while Illinois should be able to compete against teams if it can keep scoring points under Cubit’s tutelage, we saw this year that it can’t expect to beat good ones, if the Illini can’t get some stops too.
On Wednesday, Beckman said about Cubit, “We all know what he does as a coach, but he also brings a great personality to our team and to this coaching staff. It’s a great work environment for our offensive staff. Continuity is huge in this game, and that’s what we’re going to continue to strive for here.”
Continuity is great, but only if your staff has proved that they’re worth keeping. Cubit has done so. Banks? Well, not so much.
But, hey, at least Beckman got things half right.
And that’s better that we’ve seen on the field for most of the past two years.
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.