Illini football

Pictures from the Big House

Vashoune Russell made the trip to Ann Arbor, where Illinois covered the spread! (Hey, you gotta take your bright spots where you can find them.)

Here’s what he saw through his lens.

Illini football

B1G Football Media Days – download all the media guides

It’s a gorgeous day on the Near South Side of Chicago. Illinois is now relevant in football for the first time in a decade, so I made my inaugural appearance at the B1G Football Media Days. Scroll down to see what Lovie Smith & Josh Whitman had to say during the morning session.

Those two will press the flesh at the $100/plate Kickoff Luncheon here at the Hyatt Regency-McCormick Place. They’ll return later this afternoon for more Q&A, along with Wes Lunt, Ke’Shawn Vaughn & Dawuane Smoot.

While you’re waiting, peruse each and every one of the Big Ten schools’ media guides. You’ll find them all here.

Also, you’ll want to read, watch and listen to other Illini media in attendance, so here’s a (likely incomplete) list

Herb Gould – Sun-Times

Vinnie Duber – Comcast SportsNet

Jeremy Werner – Scout

Bill Bender – Sporting News

Shannon Ryan & Teddy Greenstein – Chicago Tribune

Matt Daniels, Bob Asmussen & Loren Tate – Champaign News-Gazette

Mark Tupper – Decatur Herald-Tribune

Steve Kelly & Brian Barnhart – WDWS

Doug Bucshon & Jonathan Joffe – Rivals

Gordon Voit –

There are surely others, I just didn’t see them.

Here’s what Lovie and Josh said this morning.

Illini Basketball

I feel good about Illini football. Is that weird?

Bill Cubit won his umpteenth press conference Friday by offering a non-existent carrot cake and exposing non-existent five year coaching contracts.

The carrot cake was offered to Mark Tupper, who was not physically present, but e-attended. The contract talk answered the $64 question: How can Cubit recruit when he has, essentially, no job security?

As always, Cubit was the most candid coach ever queried by attending media . (Loren Tate was absent.)

How does he recruit with no guaranteed future at Illinois? Pretty much like everyone else, he said. Everyone knows that five year contracts are meaningless. If you don’t win, you get fired.  And if you do win, and you’re at a place that’s accustomed to winning, you still get fired. (See Richt, Mark)

Cubit implied that his final two hires are currently working at other programs, preparing for bowl games. (See his entire press conference here.)


Talking with Mike LaTulip a year ago, I offered the concept of two “head” coaches running a program, one for offense, and one for defense. Illini football would be awesome with Lou Tepper and Ron Turner both in charge, right? As long as the staff included a charming recruiter as well?

Mike seemed to think it was an interesting idea, but he’s not averse to outside-the-box thinking.  The football industry, on the other hand,  is completely inside-the-box (until a guy like Bill Walsh comes along and revolutionized everything). No one would ever go for such an idea, right?

And here we are a year later, with the offensive coordinator now permanently ensconced in the lead role, with a single defensive coordinator ready to autonomously run his side of the program.

Cubit is obviously good with people. And he praised Mike Phair’s aptitude for in-home recruiting visits. That puts them ahead of Tepper, who was kinda nerdy, and Turner who hated recruiting.

But they do have charasmatic assistants as well. Nathan Scheelhaase and Jeff Hecklinski have buckets of charm.

Hecklinski is a presence. He embraced the opportunity to meet the media and talk about himself, his past and his return to Champaign. He also made it clear that he loves Michigan, where he coached under Brady Hoke.

That professed love might rub some people the wrong way, but screw them. The tribalism among sports fans is just as disturbing as it is among displaced Palestinians and Israeli settlers, but lacking any objective or historical causation (Bruce Pearl excepted).

Hecklinski’s wife Tiffany, the daughter of abrasive, foul-mouthed former Illini O-Line coach Mike Deal —”whatever stories you’ve heard about him, they’re probably true” — beat colon cancer (barely) in Ann Arbor. Hecklinski said he wouldn’t have a wife, and his children wouldn’t have a mother, but for the University of Michigan.

Hecklinski, Scheelhaase and O-line coach AJ Ricker have their work cut out for them. As Cubit said Friday, the Illini offense was really great last year, except that it couldn’t score, which Cubit seemed to tacitly acknowledge is kind of a big deal.

Can Scheelhaase establish a running game? Can Ricker solidify a line that loses a couple of key players? Can Hecklinski — ostensibly the tight ends coach but a lifelong QBs coach — teach his charges to hold on to the goddamn football, or Wes Lunt to be patient in the pocket (assuming there’s a pocket to stay in)?

The only problem with Bill Cubit is the only problem with John Groce. So far, neither has demonstrated prowess in the one area of expertise that earned him the job. Cubit’s offense has been boring and non-productive. Groce’s recruiting has failed to ignite the program or the fanbase.

But whereas Groce remains a bit of a mystery to the Illini media pool, Cubit is an open book.

On the elevator ride to field level, following Friday’s presser, Cubit confided that he always worked for coaches who played golf. It’s something he actively looked for in a coach. Not because he loves golf, but because he knows what having a hobby implies about a boss: He’s not in the office every hour of the day.

Cubit recalled interviewing with Gerry Faust at Akron. He wasn’t sure whether Faust was a golfer, so he just asked him. Once it was confirmed, Cubit accepted the job.

Illini Basketball

Illini Football is credible again

I probably wouldn’t have written anything about Tim Beckman’s dismissal, and certainly not something insulting, if Tim Beckman had gone quietly. Instead, he issued a statement  threatening “I will vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights.”

Thus, I feel obliged to examine Beckman’s reputation and legal rights.

Beckman’s reputation among football coaches, at the high school and college level, is not known to me, with one exception.  I got this in an email from a friend who worked in the MAC during Beckman’s tenure at Toledo:

When he was hired (by Illinois) and I was still at (a MAC competitor), the football crew there was telling me what an unsavory lad he was. They knew his staff well, and talked about how none of them wanted to go to the big bad B1G to work with him.

My friend now works in a different conference out east, but preferred that I use this quote without attribution.

In the larger community, observable in online fora and reputable media outlets, Beckman’s reputation is bad. It’s not a reputation he should seek to burnish. At best he’s viewed as mediocre.  From there it’s downhill.

Bumbling, incompetent, buffoonish.

One fan expressed his frustration in a classic work of graphic design:

When Beckman’s mentioned, it’s usually a gaffe that gets attention. A Boolean search for [“Tim Beckman” + embarrassing] renders immediate fodder. [“Tim Beckman” + respected] produces inconclusive results.

Did, or indeed could Beckman’s firing further tarnish his reputation? Beckman was fired for cause, which arguably bolsters his reputation. It makes him seem sinister, rather than incompetent.

What about his “legal rights?”

It’s clear that the University’s position, beginning with the initial announcement of Beckman’s dismissal, is that Beckman was in material breach of his employment contract. That document is 23 pages long, but the relevant passages are sections 2.3.b and 4.2

To recover monetary damages, Tim Beckman would have to prove that he never acted in a manner threatening to the health and well-being of student-athletes.  That seems unlikely, given the testimony already on record against him.

It’s hard to overstate the negatives. Listening to Beckman was discomforting, even painful. The only thing I ever wrote about the man was that he’s not as stupid as he seems.

After that, I just stopped writing about football. It was too depressing.

And now, that’s all changed. Bill Cubit: A Love Story is an ongoing narrative that began the day Cubit arrived in Champaign. He’s regarded as an offensive guru, and labels himself a football junkie. The media adore him because he’s honest, candid, forthcoming.

A couple of years ago I fell into the habit of recording everything Bill Cubit had to say, even though that meant ignoring the other coaches and players.  I called it “The Complete Cubit.” There are a few of them.

I’d like to add that I feel good about Tim Banks for the same reasons. He’s candid, too. But I couldn’t pull the camera away from Cubit. He’s just that good.

Last Friday Cubit told assembled media “believe it or not, I love you guys!” and “I love being around you guys.”

I do believe it, because he’s always treated us that way.

It’s such a relief to write a positive thing about Illini Football and its coach. Whether you like it, hate it, or ignore it; football is important to the local economy. Maybe Cubit won’t be named permanent successor, but for now, Illini Football is in competent hands.

I hope Tim Beckman will go quietly. Surely he can find a job in football, at some level. He’ll never attain a head coaching job as good as Illinois, and he shouldn’t.  There’s more than just X’s & O’s to being the state’s highest paid employee.