- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tim Beckman is 6-18 in two seasons at Illinois, with just one Big Ten conference victory during that time.
That, of course, is not good, especially since his embattled predecessor, Ron Zook, took the Illini to consecutive bowl games before he got fired. So is 2014 a win-or-else year for Beckman? The Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg asked some very pointed questions on that very subject to Beckman and Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas in separate interviews published today.
While neither came out and said specifically that this is a make-or-break season, both acknowledged that improvement on the field has to happen in 2014.
"[W]inning football games is the bottom line to everything, and we’ve got to be better," Beckman said. "This program needs consistency. The way that consistency is built, and this is just my opinion, but consistency is built on being able to establish yourself as you build a program."
Thomas wouldn't put a number on how many wins Beckman might need to secure his job for another year but said "we need to move the ball down the field, need to move in the right direction."
"I think last year we showed progress in a number of areas," he said. "Did we show progress in every area? Have we arrived? Are we where we want to be competitively? No, we’re not. To win at a high level and win consistently and to win in the Big Ten conference, you need to play at a high level in all phases of the game. ... So the goal and the intent is that we continue to do that to a point where we’re playing in bowl games and that’s the norm, but also eventually we’re competing for Big Ten championships."
Illinois certainly showed improvement in some aspects last season. The team increased its win total from two in Beckman's first season to four in 2013. An offense that was the worst in the Big Ten in 2012 averaged 29.7 points per game and had the league's second-best passing attack last fall. The hiring of Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator dramatically changed that side of the ball.
But the Illini still need to make that kind of jump on defense after giving up more than 35 points per game and fielding the Big Ten's worst rush defense in 2013. Beckman has repeatedly talked about the youth of his team, but he is now in his third year, when many of his recruits should be on the field.
"We’re in the process of still playing with a bunch of young players, but that’s why we feel good as coaches and [why] we’ve got that sense we can be pretty good this year," he told the Sun-Times. "Our players are maturing into what a Big Ten football player’s supposed to be. ... We’re probably one more year away from where you could say, 'We can redshirt this whole [freshman] class.' We can’t do that yet because we’ve still got some needs and continue to balance up with some junior-college players, but it’s a totally different football team in the fact of strength, in the fact of speed and in the fact of maturity than what it was a year before."
Beckman has done a really good job with less-publicized parts of the program. Players are excelling in the classroom, and off-the-field problems have been rare. Thomas said he will consider that as part of "the whole body of work" when he evaluates Beckman at the end of next season, as he does with all his coaches.
Still, fans don't really care about academics and community outreach accomplishments when you're not winning. Getting to a bowl game would be the safest way to ensure a fourth year for Beckman, and the schedule allows for that possibility. The nonconference schedule is very manageable, with home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State sandwiched around a trip to Washington. The Illini will likely need three Big Ten wins to become bowl eligible; they get Purdue and Minnesota at home in October and would probably have to win at least one of their final three games -- Iowa and Penn State in Champaign and at Northwestern. A five-win season, especially if it includes just two Big Ten victories and three wins over no-name nonconference opponents, could make Thomas' decision very difficult.
Another thing Beckman needs to do is rally the fan base. Illinois fans have not been enthralled with him, and crowds at Memorial Stadium have dipped down to sometimes embarrassing levels. Getting to a minor bowl is not enough if the seats are empty. Just ask Danny Hope.
So what do you think, Illini fans? What would Beckman have to do this fall for you to be enthusiastic about a Year 4 for his coaching tenure? Send your thoughts here.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer