By Chris Emma-
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (CBS) — On his wrist rests an important reminder, what drives Illinois football coach Tim Beckman every day. He gave one to his players, too.READ MORE: New ILogin Verification System Is Locking Out Illinoisans Trying To File Unemployment Claims
It’s a navy blue wristband with a date slated in bold orange letters: December 5, 2015, when the Big Ten Championship is played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“If you don’t even know the date of it, and you’re not looking at it every day, how could you expect to be a champion?” Beckman said Saturday.
The Fighting Illini have a new goal to strive for, with Beckman leading the charge. His first two years brought tumultuous times and what seemed like an early change to come, but Beckman was offered time to build by his boss, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
Beckman has brought Illinois from two wins in his first season to four in 2013 and up to six this past fall, with the program reaching the Heart of Dallas Bowl. This marked progress for the rising Illini, but certainly not the finish line — at least in the mind of Beckman.
“I want to compete for a championship,” Beckman said. “That’s what everybody wants this program to be. I’m not here to go to bowl games; I want to go to Lucas Oil.”
Beckman had that customary smile on his face in his office Saturday, with nearly 200 recruits visiting campus in Champaign. Pictures of the Fighting Illini’s successes from 2014 covered the walls of the football facility, but so did reminders of what their real goals are — fighting for a conference crown.
The Fighting Illini return the most important pieces of the core from a six-win season, though eight of those 22 starters from the bowl game were underclassmen. This offseason brings a retired Navy SEAL leading workouts and plenty to build on from a season of progress but not greatness.
Excitement is spreading throughout the Fighting Illini football offices.
“We believe that this program has gotten better every year since we’ve gotten here,” Beckman said. “I think the numbers show that, on and off the football field.”READ MORE: Dolton Police Involved In Incident Where Shots Were Fired On Bishop Ford Freeway
Despite the growth, Beckman has been on the proverbial hot seat since midway through his first season, a miserable 2-10 campaign. The heat is cranked up a few notches after comments like he made on signing day — following the signing of the Big Ten’s seventh-ranked class, according to 247Sports — suggesting the media should write positive articles to help the Illinois program.
Naturally, it brought negativity from the press. Just as his approval rating took a hit with a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, Beckman faced public outcry for comments of the media.
“I didn’t mean anything,” Beckman said. “I know there are things that have to be written. It ended up being misconstrued in the statement. I’m proud of what (the Illinois players) have done. I understand the media. It probably didn’t need to be brought up.”
The reality is, Beckman’s focus isn’t on the media or anywhere from football, nor should it be. His youngest son is set to graduate high school, and daughter is two months from graduation at Oklahoma State, while his oldest child, Tyler, serves on his football support staff.
Beckman constantly mentions his Illini “family,” too, a group which he holds great pride in. Those aren’t just words, either; this is a close-knit group. Need proof? That chemistry held Illinois together after a brutal home loss to Purdue, a stunning upset of Minnesota and overcoming a 4-6 record to reach bowl eligibility.
“When we talk family, we talk about anybody that touches our student-athletes’ lives,” Beckman said. “It’s not ‘teammates;’ they’re brothers.”
That football family Beckman cherishes is fighting for a championship push, now. A bowl berth and a warm Christmas were enjoyable — something to savor after a long, grueling rebuild — but far from what Illinois can accomplish.
Momentum is brewing in Champaign, with wins leading to recruiting successes and a build-up of potential for the Fighting Illini.
“There’s a litte bit of juice going here,” Beckman said. “But the expectation level is higher here. We’ve got to be better than just a bowl team.”
For Beckman and his Fighting Illini, that reminder is right on the wrist.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Cool Changes
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.