CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Illinois fired head coach Tim Beckman for mishandling athletes’ injuries on Aug. 28, eight days before the Illini’s season opener against Kent State.
When UNC quarterback Marquise Williams heard the news, his mind immediately reflected back on his true freshman season in 2011.
“I thought back to Butch,” Williams told reporters on Monday afternoon, referring to former UNC head coach Butch Davis, who was ousted on July 27, 2011, amidst NCAA turmoil.
While there were different circumstances related to the respective firings, both programs were tasked with naming interim head coaches with so little time remaining before the season started. Any type of exhaustive interview process was out of the question. UNC elected to tab defensive coordinator Everett Withers as its interim head coach, while Illinois chose offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has 13 years of head coaching experience.
The chaos involved with removing a head coach in the days and weeks ahead of a season opener may throw a fan base into disarray, but that wasn’t the case for the UNC locker room four years ago.
“It brings the team together as a family,” Williams said.
As a result, UNC’s fifth-year starting quarterback had a different take on the news of Beckman’s firing.
“A lot of people thought it was going to be a down moment for them, but I was thinking, that’s not the case,” Williams said. “These guys are going to come out and start winning football games and they’re probably going to play for a big-time bowl game.”
Illinois has surprised to date. The Illini dismantled FBS opponent Kent State, 52-3, in their opener before dismissing Western Illinois, 44-0, last Saturday. While neither of those opponents are elite-level teams, UNC head coach Larry Fedora believes Illinois deserves credit for playing well against the schedule in hand.
“They went out there and they got it done, so the mindset of their football team and what they’re doing, I’d say is pretty good,” Fedora said. “They didn’t slop around and play to the level of their opponent. They went out there and dominated and did what they should have done. That says a lot about their team.”
It’s not as though UNC is in any position to take a Power-5 opponent lightly. The Tar Heels are 9-12 against P5-level competition dating back to 2013 and have lost three straight by a combined 51 points.
UNC lost its season opener to South Carolina, 17-13, before trouncing FCS opponent N.C. A&T, 53-14, on Saturday.
“In our opinion, from looking at the film, we’ve got the best team that we’ve played this season coming in,” Fedora said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do to get prepared for Illinois.”
The fourth-year UNC head coach later expanded on that comment, saying he believed Illinois was better than South Carolina due to being more explosive across the board.
Williams agreed: “This probably the best team we’ve played this year. I think they’re better than South Carolina, even though South Carolina beat us, but I think they are.”
That’s strong praise for a program that fired its head coach 18 days ago.