By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Come Friday, Tim Beckman’s Illinois football team will face Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl for a chance to close out 2014 with a victory in the final football game of the year.
But come 2015, Beckman’s biggest opponent won’t be in uniform against the Illini.
It’ll be history.
And to overcome it, the coach will need to accomplish something that predecessors Ron Zook, Ron Turner and Lou Tepper never were able to do.
This season, by sliding into a bowl with a 6-6 record, Beckman met the standard he needed to meet in order to survive for another year in Champaign. However, with a Big Ten mark of just 4-20 after three seasons, Beckman still has plenty to prove to Illini fans – and, one would assume, his boss, athletic director Mike Thomas – if he hopes to see his contract extended beyond the two years still remaining on the current deal.
A victory over the Bulldogs in Dallas would help Beckman’s cause, but it shouldn’t be enough to earn a long-term extension on its own. Rather, to secure that, my guess is that Beckman likely will need to improve on his 6-6 regular season in 2014 with at least a 7-5 campaign in 2015.
Looking back at Illini history, however, the idea of using a bowl game as a launching pad for something more the following season is a lot easier said that done.
In fact, over the past 25 years, it’s proved downright impossible.
The last time that Illinois football followed up a season in which it made a bowl game with more wins in the next season was in 1989, when John Mackovic used a 6-5-1 campaign in 1988 and a berth in the All-American Bowl to propel his Illini to a 10-2 record in ’89 that included a win in the Citrus Bowl.
Since then, growth from one season to another hasn’t carried over. And in many years, the program has instead slipped badly after reaching the postseason.
Consider the evidence: After the 10-2 season in 1989, Mackovic’s Illini went 8-4 in 1990 (Hall of Fame Bowl), which was followed by a 6-6 record in 1991 (John Hancock Bowl), after which Mackovic made the decision to leave Illinois for Texas.
With new coach Lou Tepper taking over the reins from Mackovic, the Illini improved by a half-game to 6-5-1 with a tie in 1992, which ended in the Holiday Bowl. In 1994, Tepper led Illinois to a 7-5 season (Liberty Bowl), only to fall to 5-5-1 in 1995.
Four years later under Ron Turner in 1999, the Illini rose up again to post an 8-4 record (MicronPC.com Bowl) before tumbling to 5-6 in 2000. The following season in 2001, Illinois soared to a 10-2 record (Sugar Bowl) only to crash in 2002 with a 5-7 mark.
Five years after that in 2007, the scenario was similar with Zook as coach when Illinois ripped off a strong 9-4 season (Rose Bowl) before crumbling into a disappointing 5-7 team in 2008.
In 2010, Zook’s Illini again reached the postseason (Texas Bowl) in a 7-6 campaign and then held steady in 2011 with another 7-6 record and a bowl game (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl), but his inability to elevate the program after a bowl led to his firing.
Tepper, Turner and Zook all dealt with different struggles during their tenures in Champaign, but one thing proved consistent –the maddening and often baffling reality that, for whatever reason, football success at Illinois does not begat greater success.
So while some Illini fans may look at the Heart of Dallas Bowl as a platform for a greater year in 2015, it may be wiser to instead look at it for what it is: an opportunity to enjoy a postseason game and a winning record.
Because at Illinois, you honestly just never know when you’ll have that chance again.