Q&A: Illini head coach Bill Cubit discusses challenges of short-term deal, recruiting, 2016 season

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner chats with Illinois head coach Bill Cubit about his staff shakeup and his challenges on a short-term deal

It's already been quite the busy offseason for you. With four new assistants, did you and your staff have to do a getting-to-know-each-other session?

Cubit: "Well, a lot of guys I've been with before. Paul Williams was with me (at Western Michigan); when I first started out, I had him. He's from the University of Delaware. Of course, A.J. Ricker is like another son to me. I really have a great deal of respect for him. Tim McGarigle, I gave him his job (at Western Michigan). I'm really glad that we got him into this position where I think he's a great coach and a great person. Jeff (Hecklinski), I've known for a long time. I've talked to him previous years about sometime we should try to work together. It's really worked out well. Their coaching abilities, how they get along with kids and just as important they're recruiting abilities, I think we've done a pretty good job with our staff in terms of all those three phases there."

The administration said it wanted you for stability. Obviously there are six coaches who return, but almost have the staff has overturned. Why did you think that was necessary moving forward?

Cubit: "Well, when I talked to them, the stability a lot of it was, 'We need you to do it.' Then it got to a point where, 'How do you feel most comfortable taking care of this program?' I thought there were some things I had to change. In this day and age -- everyone is bent out of shape about this two-year deal -- but that's kind of how it is all over college football. There's 20-some openings out there. So either there was 20-some mistakes, or of course some guys had success which creates other openings. It's a different game out there. I had to go out there and basically do what I thought was best and feel comfortable on how we can move this program forward. Sometimes familiarity with how you do things is sometimes the best thing for you.

"There's some people who think about what happens when a new (athletic director) comes in, I really don't. I've been working on this thing since they named me, spending 15, 16, 18 hours a day on how we're going to structure this whole thing. I think I have a vision, but the vision has to be shared by our players. I know that. But I think that if you look back at this year, yes we only won five games. But, you know what, we were in every one of them in the conference except for the Penn State one, I thought. A couple things here and there...our kids understand how hard it is to win. I'm more of a substance guy. I tell them what they need to know. I keep it short. I keep it concise. I think the message out there has to be really direct. To me, I look at is as a great opportunity. I know we have a lot of support from a lot of people. I can't tell you how many people have called or texted or e-mailed, saying 'Coach, we're all in your corner. Let's get this thing going.' And I think we will."

Your staff got younger, Bill. Was that important to you? And if so, why?

Cubit: "Well, I think the one thing is to me I think recruiting. I just think you got to be able to relate to these players. Age doesn't matter. I think I relate to the players. I'm older (62). I need guys out there who are going to go out there and pound the table, beat the rocks out there. What this did was really give us the opportunity to have four new guys out there. Well, that's four new opportunities to go out there and get potential recruits. I've talked to all four of them and they've all said, 'I got a guy here. I got a guy there.' Well, good. Let's figure that out. If you've noticed, we haven't taken any commitments really since I've taken the job. The reason I've done that is really let's look out there and make sure we get the best. We're kind of sitting back there, we're swinging the bat. We got a lot of guys. You're going to strike out a lot, but all you have to do is hit six grand slams and all of a sudden you've improved the talent base that we're going to have in our next year's class."

Last season the offense struggled the most, but the defensive staff has undergone the most change. Why is that?

Cubit: "Well, I looked at it on offense. What happened there is at tight end, we had some injuries there. Our first two years, we were really good in explosive plays. For us, that's 18 yards a pass or 10 yards a run. That number went down significantly. Is it because of schemes? Well, I don't think so. We had some injuries, which really hindered us a little. I think we played the game a little bit different when we did lose some explosive guys. We played more toward our defense. We played a little bit more ball control. I was really disappointed in our special teams. I expected a lot more, and that didn't work out. We relied on the defense. They were older, so they got better. But at the same point, we were still giving up a lot of yards rushing, which didn't happen at the beginning of the year when I thought we played really well. It's all a matter of being aggressive over on defense. We're doing a little bit different scheme things that really hurt us (when we were on offense). On offense, we've always tried to help our defense. I think our defense this year and the structure we were using wasn't things we were seeing a lot during the year (from opposing defenses). I think your offense has to serve your defense. Your defense has to serve your offense. This is one way I thought we could do it."

The most difficult task for you right now is what?

Cubit: "Well, it's really getting our kids a little bit bigger. When we go into Big Ten, I think we're undersized. We got to improve our strength, our power up front. We got to be able to run the ball a lot better than we've done before. I think some of it is because we've had some younger kids. But we got to get more physical up front. In the back end, some of our young kids are going to have to play early. Some of our young kids, like (Jaylen) Dunlap, he has to start being a player. He came in highly recruited and hasn't done much yet. We got to get him schemed up, so we can get him playing a lot better. Linebacker's going to be a problem. We got some young guys there, and we have to make sure we get those guys ready. I don't think it's going to mental. I don't think it's going to be about the passion of our kids. I don't believe that. It's just a matter of utilizing our personnel a little bit better and taking our personnel and putting it in a scheme."

You've mentioned a little bit about the strength and conditioning and Aaron Hillmann and what's he doing there. What changes do you want to see there?

Cubit: "I think there's a lot more injuries. You track injuries and you see where they are happening. A lot of them are happening in the offseason and spring ball. What I want to do is instead of taking the stress off these kids' legs. You only get eight hours a week (with the players during the offseason), so what I think we need to do is more time in the weight room and less time out there doing just agility drills. I want them bigger, stronger and faster, but we got to be smarter. Spring ball there's a big emphasis sometimes on the defensive side it's kind of that macho go up there and smack guys around. Well, we lost a couple guys because of that. We got to practice smarter. I think we did during the season. I think that's one way that we got ourselves better. We need to get Teko Powell back and Jamal Milan, two guys that got hurt during practice and they hardly played. We need to get those guys back, and Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee. We didn't have those guys at all. Practice smarter and in the weight room, just put more emphasis on getting stronger."

We can mention the two-year deal, but you guys need some guys who can play right away at linebacker and in the secondary. How is recruiting different now than maybe if you're just taking over a program, say like you did at Western Michigan?

Cubit: "The emphasis (at WMU) was you're in the development phase, so you're taking guys with that in mind. I don't think we have that luxury right now. We got to bring in some guys that can play right away. Now you're looking at the body composition, the maturity level. When you're talking to these kids now, if they're a little bit immature and you say they're going to need a year or two, we need to move on to the next guy. We got to get a guy that can physically play in the Big Ten. That's probably the biggest thing right now. I think before we'd say we were going up against a couple teams and weren't going to get him. Well, I'm not taking that approach. I think we have a lot to sell. We have a young staff that's going to be going out there and have a lot of passion. I want that passion in the recruiting game. Again, you're going to miss some. But everybody misses. Not everybody gets exactly what they want. But we just have to get our fair share that's going to be ready to play some Big Ten football."

With this staff, does your recruiting areas change at all? It seems the Midwest dries up pretty quickly, but what are some areas you really want to hit?

Cubit: "A.J. Ricker, he's from Houston. He's recruited down there in Houston. When I went down there recruiting, to be honest with you, I threw out his name a lot ... and everybody loves him down there. I think the big emphasis too is that Dallas is another one. Ryan (Cubit) has that part there, but we might just switch that up there and get somebody else there because his area is probably bigger. A couple of our guys I'm talking to, they have some south Florida ties, some Indiana ties and they got some Philly ties. I think before it was a lot of position recruiting. I think when you position-recruit right from the get-go, you don't do a really good job in your area. You don't know where the guys are coming up in the lower grades, the '17 kids and the '18 kids. You should have a list on those kids automatically. It just didn't happen because we were all over the place. We were flying guys just checking on positions. We still got to get back to this state. We all know that. (McGarigle) is a Chicago guy. Mike Phair is a Chicago Bear guy. Jeff's from Palatine. He's a Chicago guy. Ryan's recruited in that area. That was the mind of having a base in Illinois and having enough satellite areas, where they can go out and get some guys where they have connections."

Everyone can focus on adversity you face, but you're entering your second year as a Big Ten head coach. I'm wondering what would 2012 Bill Cubit think of that, that you're entering your second season as the head coach of a Big Ten program?

Cubit: "It's kind of interesting. You really don't have time to just sit there and think about it because you're working 18 hours a day trying to figure out how to get this thing going. Am I proud of it? Yeah. I really am. I've worked hard. I've had a lot of adversity in my life and going into coaching I wasn't one of these young guys who go out there and get a job right away. I surrounded myself with good people, the Lou Sabans and the Gerry Fausts and the Larry Smiths, a lot of good people and a lot of good programs. I've had to fight. I'm going to continue fighting. Until they tell me no, they're going to have a guy out there who's going to battle and rally the troops. We have a lot of things in mind with alumni and having a different format on the spring game, getting the alums back. There's a lot of fight in this guy. I think everybody sees it, and they're going to see more of it."

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