CHAMPAIGN - Call him ‘Coach Scheelhaase’ now.
New Illinois running backs coach Nathan Scheelhaase is still getting accustomed to that title, even though many of the Illini players have called the former quarterback ‘coach’ since he took the position of assistant director of football operations earlier this year.
But not all the players.
Senior running back Josh Ferguson, who received handoffs and passes from Scheelhaase during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, hasn’t muttered Scheelhaase’s new title yet.
“I don’t think we’ve had that situation where he needed to call me ‘Coach,’” said Scheelhaase, who was promoted by interim Illini head coach Bill Cubit to fill a vacancy left by Friday’s shocking dismissal of Tim Beckman. “He gave me a ‘Yes, sir’ the other day, so obviously he sees me as a coach now.”
Said Ferguson: “It’s been fun being coached by someone I played with. It’s been cool. It’s not that difficult. Even when Nate was here, he was practically like a coach. He’s so much older than me anyway, so it wasn’t that hard to adjust to.”
Scheelhaase -- who finished his four-year run as UI starting quarterback in 2013 as the program's career total yardage leader -- spent last year away from football, working at a church in Louisville, to find out what he wanted to do next with his life. During his playing days, Scheelhaase said coaching didn’t appeal to him, not with all the instability he saw on the Illini staff during his five years with the program (five offensive coordinators since he was recruited until his final game).
But a year away from the game made his heart grow fonder of football, or just reminded him that his heart was in the game.
Scheelhaase wanted to coach and was willing to work his way up the ladder. Following Beckman’s dismissal -- for alleged indiscretions detailed in a preliminary review of an independent investigation into abuse allegations -- Scheelhaase received a bittersweet elevator ride to the next floor.
“I think everybody was just shocked (by Beckman's firing) early on,” Scheelhaase said. “But within a few hours it was like, ‘Man, we can either sit here and stay in that shocked mode or we can kind of gather ourselves together and figure out what’s the next thing we can do right.’
“I’m excited about the opportunity. Man, I couldn’t be more excited to coach the running backs, to coach what I feel like is a great, great room. ...I feel like I can do a pretty good job. Coming from the quarterback position, you know everything a running back does.”
Scheelhaase knows Bill Cubit's offense well after leading it and experiencing his best passing success during the 2013 season. The former quarterback and two-time team captain certainly has the leadership skills for the job as well.
But Scheelhaase will experience a new endeavor: recruiting.
As one of nine members on the staff, Scheelhaase now can contact recruits and make recruiting visits. He knows the recruiting process well. Scheelhaase was a heavily recruited four-star prospect out of Rockhurst High School in Kansas City. He was a go-to recruiting host as a player. And the staff often had Scheelhaase speak with visiting recruits this summer.
“As you can imagine, Nate’s a really good talker and he’s a great ambassador for the program,” Illini recruiting coordinator Ryan Cubit said. “Any time we can get him on the phone or in front of a recruit and just speak about his experience here as a player. It’s a huge plus for us that he’s played for head coach Cubit and knows what he’s all about and also talk about the school and talk about all the positives of this place.”
A media favorite during his entire career due to his friendly and introspective demeanor, Scheelhaase should be a natural recruiter.
“Shoot, last year I was a high school pastor I was literally dealing with high school kids week to week, so that’s a comfort I feel like for me personally,” Scheelhaase said. “For sure, I think that’s something I’ll be really, really good at as opposed to something I’d be nervous about.”
Scheelhaase’s biggest adjustment will be learning the intricate and ever-important recruiting rules.
“He’s never done it, so it’s just the little things,” Cubit said. “Like, you can’t call a kid twice. ...But he picks things up really fast. He’s a quick learner, so he’ll get that part pretty quick.”