College

Emma: For Illinois, It’s ‘Win Or Die’

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Illinois running back Josh Ferguson, left. (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Illinois running back Josh Ferguson, left. (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Chris Emma mug Chris Emma
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com,...
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By Chris Emma-

CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois football coach Tim Beckman knows the stakes.

His record stands at 6-18 overall, 1-17 in Big Ten play. It’s been a tumultuous two seasons in Champaign. Yet, the Fighting Illini have shown progress, and athletic director Mike Thomas stands behind his coach.

This season, Beckman’s future is in the spotlight. His job is on the line, now more than ever. He’s expected to win, or Thomas will find somebody else.

“You know, that’s the life of a football coach,” Beckman said of pressure on Monday at Big Ten media days. “If you’re not going to have that life, then you shouldn’t be in this profession. So it’s just a part of it. I’m a competitive winner, I believe.”

Four wins in 2013 were enough for a third season as the Illini’s leader, with signs of growth shown by a maturing football team. But the bar has been raised, the pressure higher than before.

Illinois needs to reach a bowl game in 2014, needs to show it’s rising up in the congested 14-team Big Ten. If the program falls short of six wins and a bowl berth, Beckman and his staff will likely be relieved of their duties.

“It’s clear, the writing is on the wall — it’s win or die for a lot of those guys,” Illinois senior offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said. “We know that. There could be a complete new front office for us next year.

“If we don’t win, it’s going to be very different for them next year.”

The Illini players are pulling for their coaches, giving everything to improve toward the team’s goals this season. It’s a tight-knit team, something that was far from the case when Beckman arrived from Toledo in 2012. Chemistry was a problem then but is now stronger than ever.

An added chip to the Illini players’ shoulders is keeping their program together, with Beckman in command.

“We don’t want (program overhaul),” Cvijanovic said. “We like coach Beckman. We like the coaches that we have. We like the atmosphere and environment. If we win in the system we’re in, we’ll all be very happy.”

In year three with Illinois, Beckman has a cohesiveness within the program. It’s his coaching staff in place, his recruits in key roster spots and his methods fully established. Everything is in place.

“We’ve got a lot of great guys on the offense, a lot of great guys on the defense and a bunch of new talent that’s come in,” senior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said. “I think we definitely have the ability to take the next step this year.”

Illinois’ struggles in Beckman’s first two seasons have been trying on everybody in the program, especially the head coach. He’s seen success at each level of the coaching ladder, but it hasn’t followed to Champaign just yet.

“I want to win because I want our players to win, not because of me,” Beckman said. “I want our players to feel what it’s like to be successful on the field and off the field.”

The Illini players feel it, too. Each loss, more frustrating than the last, delivered a more painful punch. It took 16 tries to get a Big Ten victory, with so many close calls along the way. But close isn’t good enough anymore.

Everything is culminating in this season, when Illinois must continue its ascension as a program.

“The word is hunger,” Cvijanovic said. “It’s anger. We’re angry to win. We’re upset — we want to win so badly that we’re pissed off.”

In Champaign, the clock is ticking in the Illini’s search for success.

Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.

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