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Illinois AD Mike Thomas looking for progress from Tim Beckman

“There isn’t magic number games [win]” athletic director Mike Thomas said coach Tim Beckman. “We have show ... thwe’re competitive

“There isn’t a magic number of games [to win],” athletic director Mike Thomas said of coach Tim Beckman. “We have to show ... that we’re competitive in games.” | Bradley Leeb/AP

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Updated: September 3, 2013 11:16PM



It’s always complicated at Illinois, Chapter 2-10(b).

Like his predecessor, Ron Guenther, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas runs a solid athletic department in many ways. The finances are in order. The building plan is forward-thinking. The non-revenue sports are flourishing. Men’s basketball is on solid ground.

Also like Guenther, Thomas seems bedeviled when it comes to hiring a football coach. The problem with that is this: That’s just about the most important thing an athletic director does.

There are a lot of reasons why finding the right football coach at Illinois is such a tough deal. History says it’s difficult to lure the right coach because recruiting hasn’t been easy. Even when the stadium is full, Illinois is spotting many key Big Ten rivals 20,000 to 40,000 seats worth of revenue.

Since Illini legend Ray Eliot left in 1959, only two football coaches have had winning records in Champaign — Mike White, who left because of a recruiting scandal, and John Mackovic, who bolted for Texas.

Seven others have departed without getting enough done, and Tim Beckman, who put himself in troubled waters with a 2-10 debut, could join them by season’s end even though this is only the second year of his five-year contract.

A wobbly 42-34 opening victory Saturday over Southern Illinois won’t help matters.

Years ago, coaches received five-year grace periods when they were hired. Those days are over. To be sure, I asked Thomas recently if it’s really on the table, that Beckman’s job is on the line this fall.

‘‘You obviously have to be prepared for the worst in any situation, but we’re hoping for the best,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘We just need to continue to show progress — or show progress.’’

Period.

Progress is not easily defined in circumstances like these.

‘‘There isn’t a magic number of games,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘We have to show we’re making progress and that we’re relevant, not just in the won-lost record, but that we’re relevant in games, that we’re competitive in games. And hopefully, it will be a season where we feel like we’re making progress.’’

Clearly, 2-10, Part B, isn’t going to do it. What number would? A 6-6 record would do it for Beckman, even though that got Ron Zook fired. With the hand Beckman is playing, 6-6 would put him in the hunt for coach of the year, if not NFL offers.

But honestly, it isn’t so much about numbers as exciting a skeptical fan base. About the only way to do that would be to knock off a Cincinnati and an Indiana here and there, and to take the Wisconsins and Nebraskas to the wire.

There are no indications that any of that is in danger of happening.

While 4-8 would constitute mathematical progress, would it win back a fan base that’s sitting on its hands? And if Beckman can’t do that, who’s the coach out there who can?

These are the questions Thomas will have to ponder unless Beckman engineers a shocking turnaround.

How did Illinois, which went to three bowls in Zook’s last five years, fall on such hard times?

Zook, who was on thin ice that hurt recruiting his last few years, didn’t leave Beckman a lot to work with. And even though Beckman inherited some senior talent on defense, it didn’t translate with new coaches and a new scheme last season.

How tough is it to win at Illinois? Ask Beckman.

Email: hgould@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HerbGould



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