CHICAGO – There always seems to be an issue for Tim Beckman during Big Ten Media Days.
During his first appearance at the annual media meet-and-greet, in 2012, the Illinois football coach was bombarded with questions about recruiting former Penn State players – fleeing Happy Valley following the NCAA's sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal – near the State College campus.
During his second appearance, he had to account for a disastrous, grossly uncompetitive 2-10 season (0-8 Big Ten).
His third appearance went relatively well. Beckman, known for some verbal gaffes on the podium, spoke competently and confidently about a program that had shown slight signs of improvement during a 4-8 campaign in 2013.
His fourth appearance on Thursday should have been even easier. Beckman's team took another step forward by tripling his Big Ten win total (he's now 4-20 in conference) and making a bowl game for the first time during his three-year tenure.
But, nope. There was another issue. At Big Ten Media Days, there seems to be one with Beckman. But unlike previous problems, whether this one is of Beckman's own making is still to be determined.
Beckman received just a few questions about talented quarterback Wes Lunt, injured receivers Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee, new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair, momentum of a bowl bid, whether this was finally the year his defense turns the corner or even if he felt this was another make-or-break season.
Most of the questions focused on the abuse allegations levied by several former Illini players, most notably the Twitter rant by Simon Cvijanovic.
The questions were fair. Beckman had yet responded to questions – outside of prepared statements – to allegations of medical misconduct, player mistreatment (running them off the team or threatening to take away scholarships) and getting physical with a player during practice (Beckman responded to the last claim by saying, "The only time that I've grabbed a player is to break up a fight.")
These questions were expected. Beckman was prepped by the athletic department public relations staff for such questions. Beckman mostly stuck to script on the allegations, responding repeatedly with the refrain of “We're focused on...(insert “August 5th”, the first day of practice; “September 4th”, the season opener against Kent State; or “2015”).”
But while Beckman certainly can be criticized for many foibles – consistent inability to smoothly and confidently deliver his message to the public and, most importantly, a lack of winning – the accusers' characterization of Beckman as a ruthless tyrant seems at odds with 1) the values (academics, community service, "family", etc.) Beckman touts; 2) the “family”-like culture that current players claim exists; and 3) the affable man most around the program have come to know.
On Thursday, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page news story on Beckman in which reporters talked to almost 50 of Beckman's . Some were critical of Beckman's tactics, but many – especially players Beckman recruited – were very supportive.
Senior linebacker Mason Monheim, a three-year starter and Beckman recruit, gave staunch support for Beckman on Thursday in Chicago.
“He's a very genuine guy," Monheim said. “He realizes it's bigger than football. For some, football is all they have, but he stresses the importance of school because that's so important in the scheme of like. Football's only going to last for so long. He stresses that. A lot of guys would attest to that. He's helped mold guys into outstanding young men.”
Beckman likes to refer himself as a football “father,” not only of his three biological children but of the hundreds of players he's coached throughout his career.
“I'm excited about what are kids are doing to be successful, not only as football players but as human beings,” Beckman said. “You want to win. You want your players to be successful. You want your family to be successful. It's no different than any father. You want the best for your kids.”
This seems at odds with the ruthless-dictator-who-only-cares-about-winning persona that Cvijanovic tweeted about on Mother's Day. That's not to say that Beckman didn't make mistakes with Cvijanovic or other players in the past. All those facts are yet to revealed. Beckman dodged opportunities to flat-out refute Cvijanovic's claims.
“That's for the review process to determine,” Beckman said, pivoting from the questions. “I'm just excited – I know I've used excited a lot – but I'm very eager for the season to start.”
'That's not the Tim Beckman I know'
Even if he'd like to defend himself – you know he wants to – Beckman has been advised not to comment. Cvijanovic can prove his claims by releasing his medical records but has not done so yet. He and his family have threatened a lawsuit against the university. But unlike the eight women's basketball players alleging abuse under head coach Matt Bollant and former assistant Mike Divilbiss, Cvijanovic has not yet taken that action.
Even if the independent investigation by a Chicago law firm concludes that Beckman's staff broke no law, university policy or NCAA rule, Beckman may choose not to publicly disgrace one of his players, one who represented Illinois at the 2014 Big Ten Media Days.
But most of Beckman's players – on and off the record – have said Cvijanovic's characterization of Beckman doesn't match their experiences with the Illini head coach.
“That's not the Tim Beckman I know,” Monheim said.
“I think the biggest thing with him is being open and up front. He wants the players to be open, players and coaches to be open and talk about things, whether it be practice related or things like that.
Senior guard Ted Karras suffered a torn ACL last season against Ohio State. He described the handling of his injury by the coaching staff and medical staff as “first class.”
“I can only speak for myself and what I've known,” Karras said. “I've always been treated with class and respect from Coach Beckman. Since his first game here, I've been the right guard. I have nothing but love for the guy. The way this knee was handled and everything since Ohio State last year, the day after Halloween until now has been first class. I didn't even know what to expect, but everyone checked in on me. All the coaches called me, three months, six months and nine months now. We've had consistent meetings. I've known the plan since Day One. They spelled out the plan with me since Day One, and I followed the plan and came back better than ever.”
Coaches and players may downplay the allegations, but Karras admitted on Thursday that the fervor over the allegations has been a distraction. How can it not be? The character of the players' head coach, assistants and medical staff is under attack.
Team leaders gathered player-only meetings in the wake of Cvijanovic's Mother's Day Night tweets, which resulted in a coordinated effort to show public support for the coaching staff and university with #ProudIllini tweets.
The players also have met with UI administrators and some have met with the Chicago lawyers performing the external review of the allegations, which is yet to be completed. The current players say the turmoil has brought the team closer together. That will truly be put to the test when the team faces adversity on the field this season.
“We're just going to keep pushing forward,” Monheim said. “It doesn't matter, he says, what happens outside of the dome. Whatever happens inside the dome is all we care about.”
Beckman may be under attack from some former players, but he seems to have the support of most of his current roster, which is composed almost entirely of his recruits.
“We support him 100 percent,” said Karras, who was recruited by Ron Zook. “I think we voiced that through social media, but even with one-on-one encounters with him. We have his back, and he has ours.”
Beckman rarely wins a press conference. He's a footbally guy. And when he stands in front of the lectern, he seems to amp the footbally-ness to the -nth degree – which leads to quips about “beens 'n weenies”; and acronyms, oh, the acronyms.
Beckman does not have the best awareness about what to say to the media. On Signing Day in February, Beckman had won the day. He was celebrating his best recruiting class at Illinois, one that finished among the top half of the Big Ten. But instead of taking the rare PR win, Beckman decided to challenge the media to be more positive, even though the media's job is to cover the story, whether positive or negative. Beckman had simply given the media to many opportunities to cover negative stories. And even when the story was positive on Signing Day, he diverted some of that positive attention from the media – especially some sharp-tongued personalities in Chicago.
Beckman was the butt of some more jokes by some national and Chicago media on Thursday. He opened his Big Ten Media Days all-media press conference by trying to explain OSKEE, a term used in an Illinois fight song that Beckman has turned into the team acronym motto this season. But yet again with the bright lights on him on the podium, Beckman stumbled around in his speech and struggled to coherently deliver his message.
This alone isn't a huge deal, even if a bit embrassing. Other football coaches aren't great on the podium, including Wisconsin's Paul Chryst who followed Beckman. But for a program under fire, Beckman was its representative on Thursday. And he didn't inspire confidence to the Big Ten Network audience.
During Thursday's roundtable setting, he fared better – as he usually does. Beckman doesn't have the aww-shucks charm of Bill Self, but he has a salt-of-the-earth charm that doesn't come through at the podium. Not that he speaks eloquent prose one-on-one either, but Beckman loves football. Like REALLY loves football. As the son of the coach, that's all he's ever known. He honestly sees football as a conduit to make boys into better men.
That's not to say Beckman hasn't made mistakes along the way. He underestimated the difficulty of transitioning from a core of players that loved Ron Zook and a defensive group that couldn't understand why defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was dispatched after the Illini finished among the FBS's top-10 defenses in 2011.
“It's about winning. I understand that,” Beckman said. “That first year was all my fault. As I've said many times, I take the blame. I didn't prepare them well enough. But I feel like I've made tremendous strides here, and I'm really looking forward to this year. Our players have done everything that I've asked them to do on and off the field.”
And that's it. We can talk about allegations that to this point are still unproven. We can talk about public speaking – which is an important part of the job. But this all comes back to the coach's main job: winning.
Just win, baby
Beckman had seen his father, David, go through the rollercoaster of a coaching career. But Tim Beckman had never gone through such intense individual adversity in his career before coming to Illinois. He coached on successful staffs at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer and Gregg Brandon. He was part of a 22-3 two-season run on Jim Tressel's staff at Ohio State and an 18-8 two-season run on Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State staff.
Even when Beckman became a head coach for the first time, things went pretty smoothly. At Toledo, he replaced Tom Amstutz, who went 3-9 in his final season. Beckman bettered that in his first season, going 5-7. In each of his next two seasons, Beckman led the Rockets to 7-1 conference records and bowl games.
Beckman undoubtedly overcame some hurdles at his stops, but he never faced adversity quite like he did at Illinois in his first season. He never earned the trust of some of the team's most important players, holdovers from the Zook era. Then the losing started. First, a 45-14 Week 2 embarrassment of a rout at Arizona State in primetime. Then two weeks later, an even worse 52-24 loss at home to non-BCS team Louisiana Tech.
The losing never stopped that season. Nine straight losses to end his first season in Champaign, by a combined score of 333-118 or an average score of 37-13.
“I hadn't been in those situations in my life,” Beckman admitted. “I think you learn a lot of the things both good and bad, the good things that you learn from that year and some things that you want to change. And we have. We've done those things. We've made those changes. We've incorporated some things that we thought would be a little bit different than what was done in other places.”
During that first season, Beckman had already lost most of the fan base. Some wondered if he'd already lost support within the athletic department.
“I'm sure any time you only win two football games it's not the best,” Beckman said. “The program had lost six in a row (to end the previous regular season). But it still wanes on my shoulders because I realize that first year I needed to be better.”
Despite incremental improvement each of the last two seasons (from 2-10 to 4-8 to 6-6), he continues to take body blows from the outside. Several are self-inflicted. But Beckman has taken the punches and survived.
While his first UI staff was overmatched, Beckman has made several good hires since. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the former Western Michigan coach, basically is the head coach of the Illini offense, which has been a capable and sometimes-dangerous group in the Big Ten the past two seasons. Wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy, a former All-Big Ten receiver at Illinois, has given the Illini a boost in recruiting and tutored several standouts, including Steve Hull, Mikey Dudek and Geronimo Allison. New co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Phair has brought excitement to a defense that sorely needs a turnaround. New quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit brings more Division I player experience and has given Illinois another boost to recruiting, as well.
Some thought Beckman would be fired after his first season. Some thought athletic director Mike Thomas would pull the trigger last season when Illinois lost at home to Purdue, or a month later when his team fell to 4-6 with a loss at home to Iowa. But Beckman's team survived, winning the last two games to gain bowl eligibility. And Beckman, yet again, survived.
He remains in survival mode. Thomas – who himself is under fire as his three hires (Beckman, Bollant and men's basketball coach John Groce) struggle on the court, while two of three are under review for abuse allegations – again won't quantify what Beckman must do to survive and gain a fifth season in Champaign. But Beckman, and Thomas, have little leeway this time. It's at east bowl-or-bust for the head coach who is signed through the 2016 season. No steps backward allowed. And some think given Beckman's struggles connecting elsewhere, it's seven-wins-or-bust
Yet, Beckman has never been positioned to have better success at Illinois.
The Illini defense took a big step toward the end of last season and returns most of its two-deep. Despite a few injuries, Illinois has one of the best groups of skill players in the Big Ten West. And, yes, the Illini play in the West Division, avoiding constant competition with Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and James Franklin (Penn State).
Illinois also is recruiting better than at any previous point during Beckman's tenure, finishing with a top-half-of-the-conference class in February.
Big Ten Media Days was another reminder that Beckman hasn't won over many outsiders or even many Illini fans. His Illini tenure has been marked by too many embarrassing moments, on the field or on the podium, deserved or undeserved.
For Beckman to continue to survive at Illinois, it's pretty simple. The football coach fairly criticized for many things just needs to take care of the biggest issue: win more football games.
“We know what we're doing in this program,” Beckman said. “We know how this program can get better and better each and every year because it has. That's reality. We're very, very excited about how this program's moving. We know that we're going to be prepared and ready and we're going to control what we can control.”