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COLUMBUS — Tim Beckman is not the man he used to be.
“I’ve lost 22 pounds,” he said after Illinois’ 31-17 homecoming loss to Indiana on Saturday. “You think I like losing? I haven’t been around it. I hate it.”
As Beckman’s Illini visit sixth-ranked Ohio State for a different sort of homecoming on Saturday, his nightmare first season away from the University of Toledo continues to plumb new depths.
Illinois has rarely been competitive, devolving from a program viewed as chronic underachievers under former coach Ron Zook to one this season that has not achieved anything. The Illini (2-6, 0-4 Big Ten) have endured five straight blowout losses by a margin of 195-62, and already Illinois newspapers are reporting how much it would cost to buy out the remainder of Beckman’s five-year, $9 million contract.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Beckman, a former OSU assistant who restored respect to Toledo, “might be on the hottest seat ever for a coach barely halfway through his first season.” In the Chicago Tribune, one source close to the football program labeled the hire “an absolute disaster”; another called Beckman “in way over his head.”
It is one big mess, with the backlash inspiring a counter wave of Beckman defenders, from Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas — whose job security may be entwined with the success of the football program — to one of his closest friends.
“I have great respect for Tim,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said this week. “There is no doubt he’ll get that thing turned.”
Meyer knows few in football better than Beckman, whom he met by chance as an undergraduate at Cincinnati. His roommate, Bill Davis, who is now the linebackers coach of the Browns, just happened to be Beckman’s best friend.
Meyer and Beckman, who went to Findlay, remained close as graduate assistants — Meyer at OSU and Beckman at Auburn — and during the early years of their coaching climbs.
When Meyer was hired at Bowling Green State University in 2001, he did not have to look far for his defensive coordinator. Beckman had been on the Falcons’ staff since 1998 and would remain so through 2004. Only a matter of timing kept him from joining Meyer at Utah in 2003.
“We had a death in our family, and I was not going to move my wife out to Utah at the time,” Beckman said.
The two coaches instead followed each other from afar; Meyer hurtling to top of his profession and Beckman enjoying a steady climb. Beckman spent 2005 and 2006 as cornerbacks coach at OSU and two seasons as Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator before arriving in Toledo, where he restored a slipping program back among the elite of the Mid-American Conference.
At Illinois, though, he has taken one hit after another.
By now, his aggressive attempt to poach Penn State players and his chewing-tobacco violation seem the least of them. An Illinois team that returned 15 starters from a 7-6 team ranks 111th in total offense (317.4 yards per game) and has plunged from 15th in scoring defense last year to 88th this fall.
Few expected immediate leaps as Beckman sought to infuse discipline into a program without a winning conference season since 2007 — the same way he did in his 5-7 debut season at Toledo. But Illinois’ sheer lack of competitiveness in a watered-down Big Ten has some wondering.
It is never a good sign when newspapers are scrutinizing termination figures seven games into the coach’s tenure. The Tribune reported Beckman’s buyout is twice his base pay of $400,000, though the amount decreases by $275,000 each year. (One complicating factor: Illinois is on the hook for a combined $7.1 in buyouts after firing Zook and its men’s and women’s basketball coaches after last season.)
Beckman, though, still has the right people on his side. His athletic director. His players. Even his former ones.
“We want the best for coach Beck and everyone at Illinois because when we first got here everybody was a family,” said UT running back David Fluellen, who is starring for the 8-1 Rockets under coach Matt Campbell. “When they left, we still had love for them, and we still wanted the best for them.”
Beckman believes it is only a matter of time before the Illini follow the same trajectory as the Rockets, though how much time he gets is out of his hands. For now, he grasps for a silver lining.
“I guess you learn how to take defeats in a row,” he said. “I hate losing, but how to react to the players after continued defeats, I think, is very important. The motivational part is very important and that’s what I’m proud of about this football team and how they’ve responded.
“They don’t like to lose, and I understand that, but they’ve worked extremely hard, and they’ve done things right on and off the football field.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.