Beckman and his Illini squad were in a difficult place with 4 games remaining in the season, far from a favorable situation from which they could earn a bowl bid. But Beckman gave his team, especially his seniors, a lot of credit for how they battled back and didn't quit.
"I can’t be more proud of this team for battling after being 3-5," he said. "The extra time to spend with these seniors like Reilly O’Toole and Austin Teitsma and many others is exciting."
With several games on Saturday having a serious impact on the bowl landscape nationally, it appeared that Illinois' fate was up in the air. However, Coach Beckman and his team remained confident that they would be rewarded for their efforts with a postseason opportunity.
"Honestly I wasn’t nervous," Beckman said. "This football team has played one of the hardest schedules in the country. It’s very important to be successful at the end. Our kids were deserving of it and I felt we had a good opportunity to extend our season."
He continued, "There are things you can control in life and things you can’t. These last three days we got to spend with the team made us better. You pray and you hope. This team was looking forward to having another opportunity."
Illinois was subject to several possible destinations, but one-by-one, as other bowls filled up, it became more and more likely that the Illini ended up at the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl, which takes place in the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas. And Beckman knows about the history of that venue in college football.
"To be able to travel to Texas and play in the Cotton Bowl? That’s one of the top venues when you talk about College Football," Beckman said.
Still, it wasn't until this afternoon that it became clear that Illinois would be Texas-bound for the second time in five years for a bowl.
"You hear things, but I didn’t want to say anything until it was official," Beckman said. "We had some food and some fun and sat there (at the announcement party). It’s a reward to this team. This team has worked a straight year to get themselves to this point. They didn’t take time off. We knew we were behind last year and they worked out over their breaks to stay up with the people able to go to bowls last year. It’s fulfilling."
Illinois had to make a big run late to earn a bowl game, but Beckman did say that landing the bowl berth was a little vindicating for the team after being bombarded with doubt and criticism.
"A month ago some people didn’t think we had a chance," Beckman said. "It’s kind of funny. When people doubt you and you prove them wrong, that’s rewarding for the players."
The extra bowl practices are a huge bonus for the Illini. With so many young players already contributing on the field, the extra three weeks allows Beckman and his staff to spend more time teaching and preparing those players for action, not just in the bowl game but ahead of the spring.
"This football team has definitely made strides to make itself better," he said. "Any time you can use the extra practices is huge. You see the guys you have coming back and a lot of guys that have played a lot of Big Ten football that will be back next year that you can get some snaps for. You utilize those practices to get them prepared for spring football."
The extra practice isn't the only windfall of the bowl game, though. Central Texas, specifically Dallas, is turning into a big target for Illinois football recruiting. Two of Illinois' current commits (A.D. Miller and Justice Williams) are from the Dallas area, and the Illini have a handful of Texans on the roster now.
"We feel Texas is a very important part of our program," Beckman emphasized. "Dallas, Texas is a direct flight from Champaign. It’s just getting in a plane to fly there and fly back. No layover. That’s huge in the recruiting process. That kid’s parents are just a flight away. It will be something we hope to utilize."
Now turning their full attention to preparation, Beckman's bowl practice philosophy will be very similar to his spring practice structure. He hopes maintaining competition will help keep the team from getting complacent. And as the team approaches another big test, final exams, Beckman couldn't be more proud of how the team has risen to the challenge off the field.
"We had a draft tonight. I always like drafts," he said. "The seniors drafted teams. They don’t know yet what we’re doing but we’ll do things to build some competition. I talked to the recruits we had in this week. It’s a reward to the players not just because of how they played football but how they’ve handled themselves off the field and in the classroom. We get to spend another couple weeks with these players and these seniors."
That competition extends to each of the positions, including quarterback, where the head coach is hoping that his best players rise to the occasion when it matters most.
"We still want to encourage competition," Beckman said. "We have three quarterbacks who all practiced except Reilly. Bill took each quarterback and threw them in with different groups and ran them all with the ones."
For the Illini, it's not enough just to get to a bowl. They know that they are up against a quality opponent in Louisiana Tech, who features former Illinois linebacker and defensive end Houston Bates.
"They have a great program," Beckman asserted. "We even got to watch Houston Bates play a couple games already this year. Houston has great friends down here. He’s had an outstanding year. We still stay in touch with him. Skip Holtz has a great program. We know a lot about Louisiana Tech."
Getting to the bowl was a big step for the team, but Beckman believes that a win could propel this team forward in a substantial way heading into next year.
"Winning a bowl game is very important as that last football game gives you extra momentum going into winter workouts," Beckman said. "There’s no question you go to bowl games to win. We know we have a formidable opponent."