Mike Thomas is doing his best Bond Villain impression. Instead of cutting ties with Tim Beckman quickly like the yank of a Band-Aid, he’s got Beckman tied to a conveyor belt heading towards a buzz saw. I can’t imagine a scenario where Beckman wiggles off and escapes the unemployment line, but I can understand Thomas evaluating whether firing a coach mid-season is in the best interests of Illinois Football moving forward. This week in particular, homecoming against Minnesota (6-1), should provide Thomas with all the evidence he needs for either decision.
If there is any clarification needed to my Band-Aid and buzz saw analogies, Beckman needs to be fired. Without any other proceedings, he took over a team that won back-to-back bowls (I know, I know, the team was top-heavy and Zook’s recruiting and class balance fell off a cliff – I still don’t care, the arrow is pointing down from Zook), and has since gone 9-22, including 1-18 when you remove the cupcakes out of conference. So now that we’re fully expecting Beckman to be fired, should Thomas pull the plug now, or later?
To simplify a tricky financial and political situation as much as possible, I think Thomas has to be cognizant of one heavily weighted factor: Is Beckman’s team still playing for him? Has it ever?
When a coaching change is obviously on the horizon I worry about the stagnation of player development, recruiting and how the termination process is affecting future candidates. With recruiting already doomed for 2015, and everything else being equal, you’d rather have your team rally around its leader and play its heart out. The players deserve some good memories of their careers at Illinois, and in a little more than a month it’s going to be a tough time for anyone associated with the program. Additionally, and this might be a strange concept, but playing hard and with purpose could improve the results on the field. Tim Beckman’s hire has been nothing short of a disaster, but salvaging the next five games could be his saving grace.
Jerry Kill has done a marvelous job remodeling the Minnesota program and taking it from the depths of the Big Ten to a 14-6 record over the last two seasons, but Minnesota is not a scary football team. They have buttoned up the mistakes that Illinois seems to make every week, and they play hard within the system, and therefore have started to roll off close wins against a mediocre Big Ten. But are they world beaters? No, they just squeaked by Purdue, who I still refuse to believe is better than Illinois. It’s possible that with the week off and all the horrible press that the team has rallied behind the seniors, or rallied behind talented backup Aaron Bailey, or rallied behind their Walking Dead head coach, or maybe they just like winning football games. With two weeks off of preparation, we’re about to see everything that Beckman is about, and maybe it’s more than Illini Nation has given him credit for.
But, from the evidence on tape, what could we even expect is possible?
To this point in Beckman’s tenure, I’ve never been impressed with the preparation or apparent emotion from the team. If you took pictures of the Illinois sideline and shared them with an alien race of people, they’d wonder why humans dress in pads to attend funerals. My biggest beef with his regime has been how noticeable the “woe is me” feeling is on the sideline, and how disjointed relationships have been between players and staff, and sometimes even staff and staff. If lasagna didn’t grab them at the jump, and beans & weenies didn’t grab them in the spring, maybe it’ll take impending doom and a couple more days of preparation to change the spirit in Champaign. This isn’t the most talented team, and I’m not grading on how pretty the results are, I’m watching to see if the players on the field understand what they’re trying to accomplish and have an enthusiasm for doing so.
If David Cobb comes out in maroon and smacks Illinois in the mouth, and the defeatist grey helmets go down, t here has to be change come Monday. If Jerry Kill joins the laundry list of coaches to make Beckman look like managing a Madden franchise might be beyond his coaching acumen, there needs to be a change come Monday.
Bill Cubit was arguably as successful at Western Michigan as Beckman was at Toledo, so there is an option with head coaching experience should the position be vacated. And if Illinois doesn’t use this week’s homecoming to flip the script, then it’s time for a new director, even for the time being.
Ian Gold is a graduate of the University of Illinois and is a resident of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @Einsane.