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:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6398.