By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Embattled Illinois football coach Tim Beckman came to McCormick Place with his boxing gloves on and a strategy in place.READ MORE: Chicago Sky Win First WNBA Championship As They Top Phoenix Mercury
Beckman wasn’t going to fight for his name amid accusations of player mistreatment, most notably from former team captain Simon Cvijanovic. Given the legal circumstances, there wasn’t much he could offer. He was going to stand with his gloves up and dodge — swoop the head to the left and right, have those gloves ready and avoid taking a punch.
“You know, we’re focused right now on a 2015 football team,” Beckman said at the big stage of Big Ten media days Thursday when asked directly about the allegations.
Unfortunately for Beckman, the 2015 season has taken a backseat for his Illinois football program.
The day for Beckman began by calling attention to something important. A hush swept through McCormick Center room, awaiting some clarity in the form of his first public comments. Perhaps he would clear his name completely.
“Before I get started, I would like to express something that I want to make sure that everybody understands about our program,” Beckman started. “We use the word Oskee not just because of the word Oskee or that it’s a battle cry of the University of Illinois. But it also stands for something.”
He then proceeded to explain what each letter meant. It was an acronym, for a surprise twist, like accidentally drinking seltzer water.
When Cvijanovic first took to Twitter in May and alleged psychological mistreatment and a culture of “abuse and misuse of power” from Beckman, the paradigm shifted for his fourth season as Illinois’ head coach, one that may make or break his tenure in Champaign.
Cvijanovic’s claims are part of an ongoing investigation at the University of Illinois, one enforced by chancellor Phyllis Wise.
“I truly believe we wear integrity on our sleeves,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said. “That’s the foundation of our program. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to hear it, because they think we’re diverting from these other issues — we got a lot of great things going on.”
There’s bad news for Thomas, too, because neither the Fighting Illini baseball team nor any other team matters when compared to heavy allegations against the school’s highest-paid employee.
Beckman has a 12-25 record at Illinois but took the program from 2-10 in 2012 to a bowl berth last season. Just as progress has revealed itself on the field, a scandal has formed off of it. Now, a team that appeared to be improving is being divided.
They wouldn’t admit it, but the Fighting Illini will be walking on eggshells this season. Every ounce of support Beckman can garner is important.READ MORE: Jubilant And Inspired Fans, Booming Businesses Near Wintrust Arena As Chicago Sky Win WNBA Championship
“He gave me this opportunity,” linebacker Mason Monheim said. “He gave this opportunity to hundreds and hundreds of men. It’s more than a game to him. That’s what I respect about him. He sees the whole game. He sees changing a boy into a man. I think there are many, many people who would voice that, as well.”
Added running back Josh Ferguson: “I love Coach Beckman. I support him. He’s been great to me and my teammates.”
However, one year ago, it was Cvijanovic chosen to represent his program — and coach — at the conference’s media days.
Now, it’s Cvijanovic leading a call to action against Beckman and the Illinois program.
“I hope he doesn’t coach college football again,” Cvijanovic said during an exclusive interview in May. “He’s hurt enough people.”
A college football lifer, he says, Beckman has worked to build his name in coaching as a father figure, following in the footsteps of his own father, Dave, a longtime football coach.
During his time before the media, Beckman fought off another question on the allegations against him by referring to his hopes to stand pat as a father for his players.
“We’re in the process of providing avenues for our football players to become better men, become better football players,” Beckman said. “We want the best. We want a relationship for a lifetime as we talk to them. We want to be able to communicate with one another throughout their lives.”
Here’s the reality for Beckman, his bosses and the Illinois football program: If the investigation reveals any of Cvijanovic’s harshest claims to be true, Beckman’s time in Champaign is over. The Fighting Illini will be started fresh with a new head coach.
The future of Thomas depends on Beckman, too, but more so on the strong claims of racism against women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant. It’s just another ugly mess for the Illinois athletic department.
“We’ll deal with the facts,” Thomas said. “I think a lot of people tend to form their opinions before the facts are out. When we get those facts, we’ll take the next steps and deal with them appropriately.”
Beckman can hope his good name is cleared by the ongoing investigation. The same goes for Thomas, whose department is on fire and may burn to the ground. The Fighting Illini have more to handle than the 2015 football season.
When the bell sounded, Beckman stood in the ring and dodged each punch that came his way.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Slow Warm-Up Beginning
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.