AD Mike Thomas confident coach Tim Beckman will turn Illini around
It’s always complicated at
Illinois, Chapter 673.
After nearly being fired in 2009, football coach Ron Zook settled down and Illinois won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.
That wasn’t good enough for athletic director Mike Thomas, who fired Zook last November and brought in Tim Beckman.
Now the Illini are off to an underwhelming 2-4 start. They’ve been outscored 163-59 in their four losses, and the forecast calls for more deluges. In between ominous trips to Michigan and Ohio State, Illinois plays its homecoming game against run-and-gun Indiana, a game in which every Illini muscle ought to be tighter than a drum.
Through it all, like the country singer in the classic ballad, Thomas is standing by his man.
‘‘I’m disappointed in where we are,’’ Thomas said when I caught up with him. ‘‘Our coaches, our student-athletes and our fan base are disappointed. But I have confidence Tim’s going to do great things here.’’
The original party line was that Zook didn’t leave the cupboard bare, which was true in the sense that Illinois has at least four or five defensive players who are going to play in the NFL and a good Big Ten quarterback.
Now the party line is that the cupboard is bare because Zook didn’t recruit well in his last two seasons, which is true because of his uncertain job status.
While Zook had a reputation for not ‘‘coaching ’em up,’’ Beckman hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in that department.
Thomas’ response? Trust me, he said, pointing to his hires at Cincinnati of football coaches Brian Kelly (who’s now at Notre Dame) and Butch Jones and basketball coach Mick Cronin.
‘‘Brian Kelly was 12-0,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘Butch Jones was 4-8 his first year, then he was 10-3. And now people are saying he’s the best coach in the Big East. [Cronin], who inherited a bad situation, is preseason No. 18. People were frustrated in those situations. Now they’re pleased those coaches are leading their programs.’’
Of course, Thomas has to say those things. His approval rating is on the line, too. It’s just a tough sell.
When Zook and his predecessor, Ron Turner, came in, everyone knew the Illini were at rock bottom. Turner could buy time to build with his NFL/Bears connections, and Zook could do the same with his intergalactic recruiting reputation.
Beckman can’t even put a pinch between his cheek and gum without stepping in stuff. And he has a hard time sticking to his stories.
He wasn’t going to talk about injuries, but an epidemic of injuries became a legitimate crutch for losing. He announced a media lockdown during training camp but forgot the Big Ten Network circus was coming to town. Required to take good care of BTN, he insulted all of his locals.
Asked why he took quarterback Nate Scheelhaase out after one quarter against Louisiana Tech, Beckman said he’d have to look at the film. Two days later, he said he took Scheelhaase out because he was hurt.
Not winning and not selling are not good signs.
With all that has gone on, it wouldn’t be surprising if Beckman was saying, ‘‘Holy Toledo!’’ and Thomas was keeping sharp objects away from him.
Beckman can handle it,
‘‘He has strong intestinal fortitude,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘He inherited a situation at Toledo where they had issues. He came in and, in short order, cleaned up the program. We have the same expectations for him here. We’d all like to flip a switch, and it would look different tomorrow. But that’s not generally the case here or at other places.’’
When Beckman was hired last December, I mentioned to him he was going against history because only two of Illinois’ last nine football coaches have departed with winning records.
He looked at me blankly, which was fine. Coaches don’t think
Ten months later, this probably has occurred to him: It’s always complicated at Illinois.