'Let's all rally together'

Following shock of Tim Beckman's dismissal, Illini players seek to rally around Bill Cubit, each other and the fan base

CHAMPAIGN - Ted Karras has experienced too much turmoil at Illinois.

Five different offensive line coaches. A six-game losing streak following a 6-0 start that resulted in the firing of his first head coach, Ron Zook, in 2011. A 20-game Big Ten losing streak that extended from 2011 to 2013. A torn ACL in 2014.

But the Illinois senior guard and team captain, and few college football players before him, has experienced nothing like Friday's sudden, unexpected dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman, just seven days prior to the season opener.

"We’ve seen it all. I’m not phased by it," Karras said. "I guess this would take the cake, yeah, seven days before the opener. But I don’t think anyone’s going to lose their minds or anything. We got to roll. I mean, this is a pretty resilient group of seniors, and we’re ready to go.”

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Illini players of Beckman's dismissal -- spurred by preliminary findings of an independent review into allegations of abuse and medical misconduct -- about an hour after he told an unexpecting Beckman of his firing.

Players say they had heard rumors of Beckman's firing in the moments leading up the the team meeting. There was the initial shock. There was confusion (details of the preliminary findings won't be public until the third party investigation by Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet is completed, likely during the season). There was sadness. There was anger (many of the players, including Karras, said the staff never pressured them to play hurt).

But now, the players say, it's time to focus.

“I had people talk to me when the investigation first came out, ‘Whatever happens, whatever it may be, you have to lead this team,'" senior linebacker Mason Monheim said. "That’s what myself and these seniors and these leaders are going to do.

“What (Beckman) would want and what this team wants is for us to move forward. There’s not going to be a speed bump that’s going to stop us. We have something special going on this year, and we wrote that a while ago. We started that this offseason, and we’re going to get it right.

Game prep

The unprecedented timing of Beckman's dismissal and its fallout (coaching search, pressure on Thomas, etc.) provide obvious distractions. But with the season starting 8 p.m. Friday vs. Kent State at Memorial Stadium, the players won't have much time to dwell on disctractions.

“I think it’s harder to focus when the season opener is three months away,” Monheim said. “But the season opener’s in a week, so it’s not too hard to focus. That’s we’ve all been working toward. That’s all what we love.”

While the man in charge changed, not much changes for the Illini in terms of game preparation. The man now leading the team, interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, will still make all the game preparations for the offense. He basically was the "head coach of the offense" the last two seasons and is highly respected in the locker room. 

With Cubit handling head coaching dutires -- such as media and public appearance obligations -- quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit, Bill Cubit's son who was a co-offensive coordinator under his father at Western Michigan, will take on additional responsibilities. Also, Bill Cubit will likely promote assistant director of football operations Nathan Scheelhaase, who quarterbacked Cubit's offense in 2012 and 2013, to running backs coach to fill the open staff position.

“It’s just more adversity to overcome,” junior quarterback Wes Lunt said. “We’re excited about this year and we have big expectations for ourselves. We’re going to follow behind Coach Cubit’s lead and do all that we can.

“Our goal is to win. Now that we lost our head coach, yeah, it’s sad but we have to keep moving forward. W’re only a week away from a game.”

Beckman assisted in defensive and special teams game-planning, but co-defensive coordinators Tim Banks (who has called the defense the past three seasons) and Mike Phair simply will make those game-week decisions now. Banks likely will work in the press box with Phair on the field.

“It’s our job to get those kids ready to go and play next Friday,” Bill Cubit said. “I’m sure our student-athletes will go out there and do a great job.”

Cubit takes charge

Cubit is a quality, capable leader for these unprecedented times for Illini football.

Actually, many think he's a better mind and voice to lead this program than the man he replaced. Like many U.S. president's wives, the offensive coordinator had a much higher approval rating than his head coach -- even before Friday's revelations (and seeming proof) of medical misconduct.

A big portion of the fan base had called for Beckman's firing at some point during his first three seasons and didn't root much for a coach who didn't win enough or inspire enough confidence. After Beckman's Black Friday, Illinois rid itself of its unpopular -- and allegedly abusive -- football coach.

Maybe now, fans can just root for their team, and players who have been put through the ringer during the last week -- heck, the last five years.

“We’re a family,” Cubit said. “We need everybody as far as fans, alumni, students, parents. Everybody’s got to rally together. There’s only one way to do this now. We can’t sit back there, OK, and worry about all these little distractions. There’s one way and everybody in the Illini family has to get together if we want to achieve what we need to achieve.

“Let’s all rally. Let’s all rally together, OK? And let’s get this thing going.”

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