CHAMPAIGN - Campaigning to keep a head coaching job following your fourth loss in five games might seem a bit odd.
But Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit was asked about his long-term future at Illinois, which isn’t guaranteed beyond two more weeks. And Cubit is a pretty honest fellow, so he answered pretty honestly.
He wants a contract extension as head coach. And he thinks he deserves it, even if Saturday’s 28-3 loss to undefeated Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) was another big, but expected, blow to his long-term candidacy to remain the leader of the llini (5-5, 2-4).
“It’s up to other people to figure out,” said Cubit, an interim whose current boss, Paul Kowalczyk, also has an interim title following athletic director Mike Thomas’ dismissal on Monday. “Do I think I’m the guy? There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Cubit wasn’t left to stump alone.
“I think it’s time to take the interim tag off,” Illini guard Ted Karras said. “I don’t know who everyone is waiting for. I think Kowalczyk that needs to be his first order of business, especially with how many openings there are (in college football). I mean, who would you really want that is going to be better than Bill? He’s got us going. We kind of let him down today. It would’ve been nice to come in here with a win and kind of force the hand and pop the interim tag off.”
This is a bit of an odd time at Illinois.
An interim football coach is overseen by an interim athletic director -- Cubit and Kowalczyk chatted for a minute or two on the field after Saturday’s loss -- who is overseen by an interim chancellor, Barbara WIlson.
Illinois needs a football decision in two weeks. And few within or outside the university seems to know exactly who is making that decision.
There are coaches out there who could succeed at Illinois more than Cubit, 62, who was fired by Western Michigan in 2012 after going 36-27 in the MAC over eight seasons.
But can Illinois -- which settled for Tim Beckman in 2011 -- land those coaches who can do better? They certainly can land a coach who can do worse.
Cubit still needs to win to garner more support because he doesn’t have unanimous support to return. Judging by social media interactions, it’s closer to 50/50. But a section of the dissenting opinion on Cubit knows change does not come without risk. Cubit does seem to have near-unanimous respect. Few coaches would have kept Illinois afloat among the arrows that have flown at the Illini this season: scandal, upheaval and a rash of key injuries.
Surrounded by turmoil, Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit made his case to be Illini football's stable leader -- even if his chances are slim.
“I think everybody out there, if they can’t see it, then there’s not much I can do,” Cubit said. “They’re going to get 100 percent effort from me. I think we’re a breath of fresh air around here with everything that’s going on. They come out here and see a bunch of kids fighting their butts off for the Illini. That’s how I’m going to do it too.”
Support and criticism
Cubit’s steadfast leadership has kept the Illini players focused and in the bowl hunt, needing a win at Minnesota or against Northwestern at Soldier Field to clinch a bowl bid.
“I’m with Coach Cubit all the way,” senior safety Clayton Fejedelem said. “I really follow behind him. Guys in the locker room follow behind him.”
Said Karras: “We have a chance to win eight games (with two regular-season wins and a bowl win). Around here, that’s pretty special.”
Cubit has kept a staff from splintering. While the assistants surely are concerned about their long-term futures, it hasn’t kept them from giving their players a chance to compete -- even if the roster they recruited isn't quite capable of handling the injuries they've experienced.
“He’s kept us focused on what’s really important and obviously that’s the kids and trying to win as many games as we can and continue to help them guys grow as young men,” Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We don’t talk about the situation. We talk as if we’re here. We’re going to work every day to get better and get ready for recruiting. He’s just kept us centered, and I think that’s a tribute to who he is.”
Cubit has efforted to infuse his Illini football bubble with positivity in an athletic department surrounded by negativity. He’s won over many in the media, a large section of the fan base and some administrators for his passion and professionalism.
“If you don’t see the passion in these kids, then somebody’s blind,” Cubit said. “I mean, these kids are playing their butts off against a lot of odds. They look to their leader. If I’m negative, they’re negative. I’m not being negative. ...The way they’re battling against all odds out there, give me these kids everyday of the week.”
But fairly or not, Cubit is tied to Beckman, and many want the slate cleaned after Cubit’s former boss was fired for abuse and medical misconduct -- even if cleaning the slate after the 2011 bowl season resulted in Beckman’s reign of tumult.
Cubit says he’s changed the culture during the past three months. Enough to earn an extended trial run as the program's steward?
“I’m doing what I think is more comfortable on my end,” Cubit said. “I think you see the fruits with what’s happening with these kids because they’re all buying in. If we move this far in 10 weeks, how far can we go when have some of our guys coming back and everybody’s comfortable with what we’re doing? To me, pretty good.”
Also working against Cubit: the Illini also have been tough to watch this season, especially the offense Cubit directs.
Still, Cubit’s offense was the strongest leg that Beckman’s tenure stood on following Year 2 (4-8) and Year 3 (6-6). And injuries to key playmakers, including Mikey Dudek, Josh Ferguson and Justin Hardee, have limited the offense -- not an excuse, just a fact to be weighed.
“He really truly cares,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “He could’ve played Mikey or Justin Hardee, but he wants the best for him. He’s a players’ coach. We’re lucky to have him. With all the craziness going on, it’s been a blessing to have this staff.”
A fortnight to fight
Only a foolish player would speak out against his head coach with games left to play, but the Illini player support for their coach seems too over-the-top to be disingenuous.
“I don’t think he’s done anything to not (keep the job),” Lunt said. “With everything that’s happened, just one thing after another. He’s really kept this team positive. He’s kept us positive and believing. We really believed we could win this game.”
If Cubit didn’t have the interim label, maybe staying afloat would be enough allow him to keep it.
But he’s an interim. With a few interims above him on the University of Illinois food chain.
Kowalczyk seems uncertain of his decision or if it’s his. On Monday, he said he’d evaluate the rest of the season. Unlike Thomas, he hasn’t had all season to think about the decision or back-channel any potential interest from candidates.
Maybe he’ll do like Minnesota interim athletic director Beth Goetz and sign the interim coach to a medium-sized extension to pass the decision along to the next athletic director. But that could make recruiting difficult for Illinois, and Cubit’s staff is more of a hodgepodge than Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys’ proven staff, which has had minimal turnover during their run of success during the last two decades.
Kowalczyk likely is Cubit’s biggest hope.
It seems more likely that Kowalczyk won’t make the decision, whether he’s given directive or is replaced.
Cubit and his staff know their odds to stay in Champaign are minimal.
But they’ll keep fighting with every opportunity they have left -- like Cubit did behind the lectern following Saturday’s loss -- to try to make it a tougher decision.
“I’m giving it everything I got,” Cubit said, “and I don’t think they’re going to find another guy who loves this place like me.”