CHAMPAIGN - What a weird, strange trip the Tim Beckman era was at Illinois.
And after all the reasons to terminate this experiment during the previous three years, it somehow ended shockingly on Friday.
Possibly the ugliest three-plus year run of Illinois football -- Gary Moeller (6-24-3 overall from 1977-1979) doesn't look so bad now, huh? -- fittingly had the ugliest of ends.
Illiniois athletic director Mike Thomas unprecedentedly fired Beckman on Friday, a week before the team's first game of the 2015 season, citing preliminary findings of an independent review into abuse allegations.
“I hope today provides the initial reaction, the first step that will allow the university to turn the page,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he was "disturbed" by the initial findings of the independent review by Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet -- which included 90 interviews, a review of 200,000 documents and hours of practice and game video -- though he did not detail what was found beyond what was written in the university's press release.
The statement said that Thomas learned of "efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite many injuries." Most of these findings seem to support the claims made by former Illinois offensive tackle Simon Cvijanovic, whose May tweets sparked the investigation.
Cvijanovic has not yet filed suit against the university, and neither had any other former Illini players. So the allegations at times seemed less severe than those of abuse and racism against Matt Bollant's Illini women's basketball program (Bollant was cleared of any major fault by an independent review that concluded earlier this month).
But Cvijanovic, who advocates a louder voice for student-athletes, appears to have had a case.
In a statement through text message to Illini Inquirer, Cvijanovic said, "I'd like to say that it is definitely a step in the right direction and that following the findings of the university, I am calling a meeting of the University of Illinois, the Big Ten and the NCAA to discuss how to move forward. Clearly, the current system of medical reporting and student-athlete representation needs to be addressed."
The findings must be deplorable if Thomas -- who said the decision to fire Beckman was "my call" -- would 1) fire Beckman six days before the Illini kick off the season against Kent State, 2) fire him before the entire review is complete, and 3) fire him without paying for the $743,000 left on his buy-out clause or the $3.1 million remaining on the last two years of his contract. The UI athletic department, and its lawyers, must have found cause. The details of that will not be public until the review concludes, possibly midway through the season.
“I wish I could share more,” Thomas said. “But it’s really no different than what you’re reading in the press release. That’s really as far as I can discuss the matter today. ...It’s not a complete report yet. It’s still an ongoing process.”
The Beckman drama isn't done either. Beckman released a statement "firmly" denying Thomas's implications "implications in Mike's statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players." Beckman said he fully cooperated with the investigation and that university made a "rush to judgment" to make a conclusion before the investigation reached completion.
It sounds as if Beckman will sue the university, saying that the university's decision is a "violation of the procedures mandated under my employment agreement."
“I am very proud of my career at the University of Illinois," Beckman said. "Off-field incidents involving my players have been essentially non-existent while academic performance and graduation rates have been extraordinary. The love and support I have received today from my players means everything to me.”
Beckman rarely made the right steps at Illinois. Heck, there were rumors after each of his three seasons that he would be fired -- and if they had been proven true, the action would have had merit.
He started controversy before he coached an Illini game by sending his staff near the Penn State campus to recruit Nittany Lions players who were free to transfer without penalty following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He caused further embarrasment after he got caught chewing tobacco on the sidelines of a game at Wisconsin, a blatant NCAA violation, and also committed a sideline interference penalty when he was run over by a referee on the sideline.
But the biggest embarrasment of that first year? The over-matched staff he hired coached a team that was outscored 281-94 during Big Ten play, an average margin of defeat of 23 points per game.
His next two seasons saw slight progress, to 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten) in 2013 to 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten) and a bowl appearance in 2014 -- thanks in large part to the addition of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who now takes over as interim head coach. But the Illini still were largely outclassed during Big Ten play during the past two seasons, getting outscored 553-383 (an average margin of defeat of 11 points per game.
And even the remarkable comeback to bowl eligibility didn't sway fans who decided to give up on the Beckman era in Year 1, Year 2 or following last October's loss to Purdue (which has only won that one Big Ten game during the past two seasons).
Coincidentally, 2015 looked like Beckman's best chance at success. He had his deepest roster with a few potential stars and had just signed the best recruiting class of his Illini tenure (sixth among 14 Big Ten teams, according to the Scout.com team rankings). But even Signing Day didn't go without controversy. Instead of winning the day, Beckman challenged the media (as he did following the Illini's bowl-eligibility-clinching win at Northwestern last November) to more positively cover the program to help it improve.
To his credit, Beckman leaves a better foundation and a deeper roster than he inherited from Ron Zook. But he leaves the program in more turmoil.
When asked what made him want to hire Beckman in 2011, Thomas cited Beckman's on-the-field success at Toledo (14-2 in the Mid-American Conference his last two seasons), off-the-field success (academics, few off-the-field incidents, etc.) and backing of several successful coaches for whom Beckman worked under (including Jim Tressel, Mike Gundy and Urban Meyer).
That hire has backfired on Thomas and now threatens the athletic director's job security.
But Friday's decision wasn't about wins and losses -- not if the review found what Thomas suggests.
Because while a 4-20 Big Ten record during Beckman's tenure and several speaking gaffes embarrassed the program, the allegations -- and now seemingly, the proof -- of abuse mars the Beckman era more and drags Illinois through the mud further.
An embarrasing end for an embarrasing era.
Tim Beckman's full statement:
“I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the decision Mike Thomas and the University of Illinois made today regarding my employment as head coach of the football team," Beckman said in the statement. "First and foremost, I firmly deny the implications in Mike's statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players. The health and well-being of our student-athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false. Additionally, in connection with scholarships for student-athletes, I have complied with the policies and regulations of both the university and the NCAA and I have fully supported the university compliance office. Moreover, all of the actions that I took regarding individual scholarships were in lockstep with the university's appointed personnel and the directions and approvals I received from university officials.
“I fully cooperated with the university's investigation, having sat down for two lengthy interviews and turning over all documentation requested of me. The fact that the university did not even complete its investigation in this matter is evidence that this entire process was nothing more than a rush to judgment and confirms the university's abject bad faith. Furthermore, the university's actions today are in violation of the procedures mandated under my employment agreement. As such, I will vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights.
“I am very proud of my career at the University of Illinois. Off-field incidents involving my players have been essentially non-existent while academic performance and graduation rates have been extraordinary. The love and support I have received today from my players means everything to me.”