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Winning at Illinois always an uphill climb, as Beckman has learned

Tim Beckman

Tim Beckman

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:28PM



There’s always a gap between fans’ expectations and what’s realistic. That’s the nature of sports.

But the gap is seriously wide for Illinois football, as coach Tim Beckman is learning this fall.

The hard way.

Illini fans look at Iowa and Wisconsin and say, ‘‘Why not us?’’

What they don’t see is that Chicago is an open city recruited by Notre Dame and any number of Big Ten schools and national powers who routinely negate Illinois’ supposed home-state advantage.

What they don’t see are vastly larger, jammed stadiums, which provide any number of program-building ingredients. These are not limited to facilities and coaches’ salaries. Big stadiums attract athletes and coaches who want to play on the biggest stages.

Impatient Illinois fans who travel to Ohio State’s immense Horseshoe on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN) will understand. So will those who went to Wisconsin or Michigan last month. The six or seven Big Ten teams who do business like Wal-Mart make the others feel more like mom-and-pop operations.

The trend can be defied with deft management, as Northwestern has been showing for a while now. But at places such as Illinois, which has more in common with Minnesota and Purdue than the league’s super-stores, false steps are calamitous.

‘‘The national impression, at least in my studio, is that [Illinois] is a very tough
job,’’ ESPN analyst Rece Davis said. ‘‘There are people who believe it shouldn’t be as tough as it’s been. But if history continues to tell you it’s a tough place to win, there must be a reason for that.’’

Here’s the history: Only two of Illinois’ nine coaches in the last half-century have managed to have winning records. One, John Mackovic, left for Texas at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. The other, Mike White, landed in hot water with the NCAA.

Ron Turner, with an impeccable Bears/NFL pedigree, couldn’t get it done. Neither could master recruiter Ron Zook.

All of that said, while it’s difficult to win at Illinois, it’s not impossible. Zook got to a Rose Bowl, Turner to a Sugar Bowl. It’s a big-time university in a big-time league. And contrary to reports, the athletic department is holding its own financially, bolstered by membership in the most profitable college conference in the world.

It’s just tough on Beckman, who confessed he has lost 22 pounds this fall but said he’s learning some painful but important lessons.

‘‘You learn how to take defeat,’’ he said. ‘‘I hate losing. How to react to the players after continued defeat is very important. The motivational part is very important. That’s what I’m proud about — how this football team has responded. They’ve worked extremely hard, and they’ve done things right on and off the field.’’

It has been very humbling for Beckman, who strode into Champaign with an unsophisticated enthusiasm that might have worked in Toledo or Oklahoma State but hasn’t held up as well at Illinois, which is a combination of two very different constituencies, Downstate and Chicago.

What revs up the crowd in Champaign often produces chortles in the big city.

But the players are hanging in there with Beckman, who has changed gears from ‘‘Steaks and Cakes’’ after wins to ‘‘Own the Day’’ with Illinois mired in a five-game losing streak.

‘‘I like all his tactics and the little slogans he has,’’ sophomore offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said. ‘‘He’s a really fiery guy. So we take a lot of what he says seriously.

‘‘The mentality when the season started was to be Big Ten champions. Now it’s changed to, ‘We’re going to take one day at a time and fight to get better every day.’ I think I like that mentality more. It keeps you focused on the task at hand.’’

The losing ways have been difficult for coaches as well as players, whether Beckman steps onto a scale or into a meeting room. With all the uproar and hostility swirling outside the program, he’s trying to build for the future and trying to keep his teeth unclenched.

‘‘Coach is a hands-on coach,’’ defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. ‘‘And he’s a strong individual. He understands that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s tough on him, but it’s tough on all of us. We knew that when we signed up for it. If you don’t have the stones to get it done, you need to be doing something different.’’

That’s especially true at Illinois, where winning is not an easy thing to do.



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