By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Eleven months ago, I put the heat on Tim Beckman.
And, in turn, I drew some considerable fire.
On Sept. 25, 2012, three days after Illinois was humiliated 52-24 by Louisiana Tech at Memorial Stadium to fall to 2-2 on the young season, I published a column entitled “The Truth About Illinois Football.”
Among the many thoughts that I expressed in the piece, I wrote the following about the Fighting Illini’s first-year football coach: “While being outscored 97-38 by ASU and Louisiana Tech, Beckman has shown himself to be overmatched, outwitted and unprepared to coach big-time football.
“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.”
Upon reading those words, a sizable number of Illini fans rose up online and shouted that my comments were premature. They argued that it was unfair to criticize a coach so harshly after just four games. And they said I was reading too much into Beckman’s series of off-field missteps, which factored into my opinion nearly as much as the lopsided losses on it.
A funny thing happened after I wrote that column, though – or, rather, not-so-funny.
Illinois didn’t win again.
Beckman’s debut squad lost all eight Big Ten conference games by an average score of 37-13 and finished the season a sadsack 2-10.
So, rather than premature, perhaps my assessment of Beckman’s outfit was instead prescient. But all that was in 2012. And even if it was an Illini season that was about as bad as I can ever recall, this is 2013. And with the new year, Tim Beckman has his fresh chance to prove his critics – like me – wrong, beginning with Saturday’s season opener at home against Southern Illinois.
However, there may be a difference between Beckman actually proving his critics wrong and doing enough to simply survive to coach the 2014 season. So, what exactly does he need to accomplish over the next three months in order to achieve both the former and/or the latter?
This week, one of my Twitter followers commented that, “It would help if everyone gave Beckman some breathing room and not be so eager to move on already.” To that opinion I replied, “I’d argue that Beckman needs to earn his breathing room.”
And with that in mind, here’s my take on what will get Beckman breathing room from Illinois AD Mike Thomas, a man whom I’m quite certain doesn’t want to fire his hand-picked coach after just two seasons if he doesn’t absolutely have to.
If Beckman goes 2-2 against SIU, Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Washington – with SIU and Miami being the most likely victories – and beats just one Big Ten foe for three total wins, I’d say there’s a good chance that he’s back for 2014. If he goes 2-2 and then wins a pair of Big Ten games for four total wins, I’ll almost guarantee that he is.
If, however, Beckman wins only two games or fewer and ends up showing a two-season ledger of 4-20, 0-16 (or worse) come December? Well, it’s awfully difficult to see how Thomas could justify his coach’s return for a third season, especially if attendance bottoms out at Memorial Stadium.
But, while just three wins may indeed be good enough to keep Beckman in Thomas’ (relatively) good graces, what will it take for Illini Nation to actually begin feeling something good about their football coach?
I’d argue that to accomplish considerable feat Beckman would need to beat both SIU and Miami convincingly and be truly competitive against both Cincinnati and Washington – an upset of one of those two schools would also certainly help a great deal. Then, in the Big Ten, he would have to at least beat Purdue, if not an IU or a Penn State, to boot.
If Beckman wins four games this season, he may sway some fans back to his side. If he were to somehow win five, he’d surely swing a lot more. Also very important will be how well prepared Illinois looks to be for games throughout this season and how the team develops as the year wears on.
I still think Illinois is more likely to win just two games this season than to win four, but we shall see. After all, Beckman has his second chance and no one knows for sure exactly how he’ll do.
But we’ll begin to find out on Saturday. And after 350 doggone days without a win, it’s time for the Illini to roll over the Salukis.
That much I know for sure.
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.