A Long climb up: musings on the current state of Illini football
I got advice that I should write about whatever I want and not worry if people are interested. I am following that advice so you get a post on the University of Illinois' football program. Feel free to stop reading now:)
In this post I will be taking tidbits I have heard from people who have or had some information from the athletic department. I admit most of this is third party rumor so I will not stand behind any of it. This is not journalism. In fact a good chunk of what I am going to tell you came from some old guy I whose name I never even knew.
Were are we at?
To be blunt the Illini football program inhabits a dark, terrifying, horrible pit of lameness. The team has managed one big ten win in the last two seasons. The actual stats point out the incompetence over that period. In 2012 the Illini were ranked 52 overall in defense at 387.58 yards per game and 122nd in offense at 294.2 yards per game. There are only 124 teams in division 1 college football. So we were the 3rd worst offense in all of division 1. In 2013 the stats change up a little bit. The offense under a new coordinator jumped up to 45th in the nation with 426.7 yards per game. Sadly the defense plummeted to 110th in the nation and gave up 485 yards per game. Fan interest remained low and the stadium got more and more empty as the season went on.
How did we get here?
We need to go back to before the hiring of Tim Beckman to understand how we got to this lowly state. Before Mike Thomas Illinois had Ron Guenther as athletic director, the person who hires and fires coaches. Generally regarded as a good athletic director, Gunther came under fire for his hires for head football coach. Despite moderate success many fans thought he stayed to long with mediocre coaches Ron Turner and Ron Zook. After Gunther's retirement new Thomas entered the picture. He quickly wanted to shake things up and the firing began. After two consecutive 7-6 seasons including the first time Illini had won a bowl game in consecutive seasons Ron Zook was out. Many fans heralded this move and Thomas' claim that only big ten conference championships would be acceptable. He praised Zook for leaving the program better than he found it. It’s clear that Thomas thought the program was on the cusp of being a regular force in the Big Ten Conference andThomas expected the Illini job to be an attractive one to candidates.
For the State and the University, Thomas' timing didn't come at an optimal timing. The State and the University both were experiencing a budget crisis. On top of that, the University experienced a bunch of scandal and instability around Hogan the then University President. Hogan eventually resigned under a thick cloud. This coupled with the rumored reputation Thomas has for being unlikeable and hard to work for* made the job much less attractive than many thought.
The new coach search begin with the focus being on University of Houston's coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin was regarded as one of the hottest up an coming candidates. Rumor is that despite not having contacted Sumlin, Thomas believed the hire to basically be a done deal. In fact, they were supposedly hours away from announcing the hire when it all fell through. Rebuffed Thomas moved down the list. He offered the job to both Boise State's Chris Petersen and Cincinnati's Butch Jones who turned him down. With the coaching search quickly turning into a farce, rumors indicated Thomas began to scramble to save face. Allegedly, contacting two or three more candidates. They all told him no. Nearing the bottom of the list Thomas saw a name that only a few had on their radar, Tim Beckman. Thomas quickly got an interview together and almost immediately offered Beckman the job. I has been claims that Beckman wasn't sold on taking the job. He had to be convinced. This might explain the overly long contract with such a high salary for a rather poor unheralded candidate.
How do we get out of here?
Thomas believed when he fired Zook that the program did not need a total rebuild. In my estimation he was right. Beckman's first year team had four players drafted by the NFL. The most in the Big Ten. After the first two years of Beckman's "leadership" we are at the ground floor of an entire rebuilding. There are a few good young players on the team but overall the team is much worse off than just two years ago.
It seems clear to me that Beckman can not be trusted to clean up the mess he has made. So step one is to fire Beckman.
Step two is to find the new coach. This promises to be no easy task. I think there are three things that Illinois will have to do to bring in the right coach. First, think outside the box. No "Candidate must have head coaching experience" this time. Be willing to look at almost anyone. Search the high school ranks, look into pro assistants and coaches, leave no stone unturned. This is a process that needs to start now even thought Beckman is staying. Just do it through back channels. Secondly be willing to give a long term contract with a salary in the two and a half million range. You are going to have to overpay. Thirdly, actually put full support behind the football program. At Illinois basketball reigns as king with football being the funny odd royal cousin.
With an open pocket book and a stabilized university situation I don't see why Illinois can't pull a better candidate this time around.
*The unnamed old guy put it succinctly "Mike Thomas is an #%$hole"