By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Mike Thomas could not have been clearer about his standards for Illinois football. The school’s athletic director laid it all out in very certain terms the day he fired Ron Zook.

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“It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships,” he said on November 27th, 2011. “This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best.”

That is apparently no longer true.

The Tim Beckman hire was a mistake and everybody has known it since his first press conference, but Thomas won’t admit as much by pulling the plug. Instead he’ll be propped up by the usual slapdash of coordinator changes, free to put Illinois another year back toward the sorry rear end of the Big Ten. The team does have some consistency, however, in that it is routinely embarrassing and uncompetitive.

Beckman won zero conference games in his first season. This year he won one, a four-point victory over bumbling Purdue.

This is like an automaker churning out cars that don’t work, but keeping the assembly line rolling just because they can. There is no logical reason for Beckman’s retention – no case to be made for anything he has done on the field or off, no objective or even anecdotal evidence of any competence, and no valid argument that it’s going to get better.

You say it’s about money? That there’s no way Thomas will pay off the remainder of this deal while still absorbing Zook’s $2.6 million and then shelling out what’s needed for a new coach and new staff?

I say that’s weak — both shortsighted and ignorant of the economic data.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has money pouring to the schools in vast waves from massive, major-market television deals. In the most recent fiscal year, each school in the conference received a $25.7 million share of the $315 million in revenue, most of any conference. The vaunted SEC may have the fertile ground that produces more athletic talent, but there just aren’t enough people and televisions in Mississippi and Alabama to produce that kind of cash.

When Rutgers and Maryland and the New York/Baltimore/Washington markets come on line, the next TV contract will blow this one away. Delany reportedly told conference trustees that the 2017 payout will be $40 million per school, per year.

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That’s more than enough to cover all the costs of ending this ongoing failure.

The painful truth is that Zook was a better coach. As goofy and dimwitted as he was, the guy at least pulled national-level talent to Champaign. His play-calling was weird and his explanations sometimes bizarre, but he did have a team in the Rose Bowl.

Beckman is bringing in mid-major-quality players, losing all the time, and acting like an idiot on the sidelines. This is now farther away than before from going head-to-head with the very best, and the stated goal of competing for championships now looks like a sick joke.

I have no idea how many conference games he expects Beckman to win next year or beyond, but Thomas seems to believe in the plan, whatever it is. That’s the only reasonable explanation for why the status quo is acceptable when held up against his forceful mission statement of two years ago.

This makes no sense.

What’s scarier to confront is the possibility that Thomas feels he has no viable alternative, recognizing that the Illinois job is not coveted. He’s safe in his position as AD as long as the basketball team’s quality distracts from the toxic football wasteland, and he can sit idly and hope for some kind of dead-cat bounce.

The problem is that he has stated quite otherwise, and he must be accountable for his words.


Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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