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Published: Sunday, 11/4/2012

COMMENTARY

Ex-Toledo coach feeling heat at Illinois

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

COLUMBUS — Some­where on that Ur­ban Meyer coach­ing tree is a branch with Tim Beck­man’s name on it. It’s a low branch, about as low right now as it can dan­gle. For crit­ics, a group that grows by the week and by the score, Beck­man is low-hang­ing fruit, easy to pick at and pick on.

The score this week was Ohio State 52, Il­li­nois 22. That’s six straight losses for the not-quite-Fight­ing Illini by an av­er­age mar­gin of 27 points.

“It feels a lit­tle dif­fer­ent sit­ting up here than it did last year,” Beck­man said Satur­day, his el­bows rest­ing on a ta­ble set on a raised plat­form for his post-game news con­fer­ence at Ohio Sta­dium.

That was when Beck­man was head coach at Toledo and his Rock­ets had come up just short of the Buck­eyes 27-22 in one of those coulda-won, maybe even shoulda-won games.

He was asked, con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances, if it seemed lon­ger ago than that.

“What year is it?” he an­swered with a smile. “No, no, it’s all right.”

And his voice trailed off.

In re­al­ity, Beck­man’s first year with the Illini has been any­thing but all right.

I’m not sure I can re­call any fan base turn­ing on a coach as quickly as Il­li­nois fans have turned on Beck­man.

It has been fu­eled some­what by the me­dia. A story in a Chi­cago pa­per this last week gave spe­cif­ics of the buy­out amount in his five-year, $9 mil­lion con­tract. Not in a year or two. Now. Yester­day. The day be­fore, if pos­si­ble.

Is it fair? No one ex­pected the Illini to be Rose Bowl-bound. Fans would prob­a­bly have been happy with a .500 sea­son and the Lit­tle Cae­sar’s Pizza Bowl. But the pre­vi­ous coach­ing staff left a well-stocked de­fense, it seemed, and a quar­ter­back who had taken the team to a pair of bowl games, al­beit mi­nor ones, and no one ex­pected the team to be so non-com­pet­i­tive.

Still, Satur­day’s out­come could not have been much of a sur­prise to any­one. On one hand, Beck­man’s 2012 Il­li­nois team prob­a­bly isn’t as good as his 2011 Toledo team. And, on the other, Ur­ban Meyer’s Buck­eyes are 10-0, ranked sixth na­tion­ally, and cer­tainly not the same Ohio State team that Beck­man faced a year ago.

But it was an­other blow­out loss and, yes, fair or not, it will turn up the heat.

“We had bumps in the road at Toledo too our first year,” said Beck­man, an aide to Meyer at Bowl­ing Green in 2001-02 and an as­sis­tant coach at OSU in 2005-06. “We only won five foot­ball games. The bumps here might be a lit­tle higher.

“Look, I want to do what’s best for these kids. That’s why I’m in this pro­fes­sion. A lot of my for­mer [OSU] play­ers made a point of see­ing me to­day. That’s what it’s about. I get text mes­sages all the time say­ing, ‘Good luck, you’ll get out of it.’ And we will. This is tough on all of us. But we’ll get out of it.”

Beck­man hasn’t given up on this sea­son, which in­cludes home games the next two Satur­days against Min­ne­sota and Pur­due. They could be win­na­ble or they could be re­peats of the last home game, a 14-point loss to In­di­ana that re­ally shifted the Beck­man bile on blogs and in chat rooms into over­drive.

The 2-7 start, in­clud­ing 0-5 in the Big Ten, has af­fected more than merely Beck­man’s pop­u­lar­ity.

Satur­day was the first time I’d seen him since he left UT last Decem­ber. There’s a lot more salt than pep­per in his hair now, he looks wan and worn. He said on a telecon­fer­ence early last week that he had lost 22 pounds, which he at­trib­uted to the stress of los­ing. Mer­ci­fully, no­body asked for an up­date Satur­day.

One thing that’s no dif­fer­ent, though, is Beck­man’s swag­ger. He has al­ways been con­fi­dent bor­der­ing on cocky. 

He’s still feisty. He has been de­feated but not beaten.

Much of the Il­li­nois fan­dom is convinced he was a bad hire — de­spite his last two Toledo teams win­ning 16 games and go­ing to a pair of bowls — and that he is in over his head.

He’ll get the time to prove them wrong or right. Mike Tho­mas, the Il­li­nois ath­letic di­rec­tor, is firmly in his cor­ner if only be­cause he has no choice.

In the last 11 months, Tho­mas fired a foot­ball coach, the men’s bas­ket­ball coach, and the women’s bas­ket­ball coach. They are re­port­edly be­ing paid $7 mil­lion-plus to not coach.

Beck­man was his first big hire at Il­li­nois and Tho­mas cer­tainly isn’t go­ing to ad­mit he was wrong with­out giv­ing his coach plenty of rope.

“We just have to get bet­ter,” Beck­man said.

And sooner rather than later, be­fore that rope is put to an­other use.

Con­tact Blade sports col­um­nistDave Hack­en­berg at:dhack@the­blade.comor 419-724-6398.



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