Josh Whitman decided Bill Cubit wasn't the man to lead an Illinois football resurgence. While I was impressed and intrigued by the staff Cubit assembled on a two-year deal, that's a sound decision by the new Illini athletics director -- especially if Whitman officially names Lovie Smith his new head coach in the coming days. The deck was stacked against Cubit, despite his admirable and persistent efforts to 1) prove everyone wrong, and 2) become the guy to finally turn around Illinois football. Cubit had a two-year deal that everyone knew was a placeholder deal that only guaranteed him time until the next athletic director chose to fire him. That happened sooner than he, we and probably administration thought. Yet, I hope Cubit is remembered fondly by Illini fans despite the now former Illini coach acting as the face -- and often the voice -- of a rudderless Illini athletics department during the fall of 2015.
Illinois football and the athletics department were fortunate to have a competent coach and spokesperson when they needed one but didn't necessarily deserve one. In his short time as Illini head coach, Cubit -- who was promoted from offensive coordinator to interim head coach a week before the season after Tim Beckman was dismissed following the results of an investigation into player abuse and medical mistreatment -- didn't win big on the field (5-7 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) or in recruiting (he signed the No. 60 nationally-ranked recruiting class in February). But he kept the Illini competitive in both areas when they had every reason to fold. Publicly, he was the anti-Beckman. University and athletics officials didn't fear and loathe every time he stepped in front of a microphone, like they did with Beckman. Media asked him more questions because he had intelligent, introspective answers. With Cubit at the helm, fans actually seemed to respect their head coach even if they didn't like that his offense was tough to watch in 2015. And yeah, his offense struggled last season, but Cubit's offenses carried Beckman's teams in 2013 and 2014 and kept those seasons from further embarrassment. Cubit wasn't the answer, but he was far from the Illini's problem. He just was the man who admirably took on all the problems while those above him wrung their hands.
Even the guy who fired Cubit holds respect for him. "I think Bill has done an admirable job," Whitman said on Saturday. "He's been in the midst of a very delicate and challenging situation. We all understand that when a change happens a week before the season, we really thank BIll for his incredible leadership. He's stepped up and done all the right things to provide some level of leadership and continuity to what has unquestionably been a very difficult and tumultious few months for our football team."
Cubit in all likelihood wasn't the long-term answer. After all, he couldn't push Western Michigan over the hump in the MAC, leading to his dismissal as head coach in 2012. With him as head coach with a two-year deal he accepted from interim leadership, Illinois entered yet another season of uncertainty -- the same as it had in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Cubit's staff appeared to be making small strides in recruiting but were they enough to truly land enough difference-makers to lift Illinois in the Big Ten? Plus, Cubit's 2016 roster had major holes, especially on defenses, and his 2017 roster has even more -- something Smith will have to attack. But Smith will immediately infuse Illinois with momentum, giving him time to sell his impressive past, a vision at Illinois and hope for the future. With Smith, Illinois immediately is regionally and nationally relevant. With Cubit -- through no fault of his own -- Illinois football barely registered outside of Champaign County.
Still, Cubit kept Illinois afloat as it took on more and more water. Sure, it was a great opportunity for Cubit. He lived out his dream of being a Big Ten head football coach. He received more than $1 million in additional pay for his seven months on the job. He deserved it based on what he had to deal with. Illinois probably needed a clean break from the Beckman era, which fair or not included Cubit. But he represented the program, the university and its fans in a much more positive light than his predecessor. For that, the Illini should be ever grateful.
On a personal level, I enjoyed a great professional relationship with Cubit. Now, Cubit knows the game. He understands that developing relationships with media can be beneficial. But he never asked me to twist a story or sunny it up for Illinois (like some have). He was always willing to answer tough questions I threw his way, and he always returned my texts and calls. Always. That's a rarity for increasingly paranoid and distant college coaches these days. Some skeptics seemed to question Cubit's intentions in the past few months. I never got that vibe. Sure, he earned some extra money and had a Big Ten head coaching job for longer than he would've had it undernormal cirumstances. But he truly loves coaching, he truly enjoyed his time at Illinois and he truly appreciated this opportunity and the fans. He honestly wanted to make a difference at Illinois. I also think many were a bit too harsh on Ryan Cubit, a bright young coach who was one of the Illini's best recruiters. Yes, he wouldn't have been the offensive coordinator for the past seven months if his father was not the Illinois coach -- but he was the best for the role under the circumstances. Plus, Lovie Smith also will have sons on his coaching staff. That's part of the business world. It doesn't mean sons aren't qualified for assistant jobs. Ryan Cubit was a solid coach and he helped Illinois more than a lot of assistants in recent seasons. If Bill does not continue to coach -- part of me thinks he will but another part of me thinks he'll head to Florida and "retire," though he'll likely always do something with football -- I'm excited at the thought of Ryan spreading his wings on another staff. It might be best for him in the long-term. Both Bill and Ryan were compensated well for their dismissals, but both poured a lot of time, effort and emotion into Illinois.