When former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic made his abuse allegations against Tim Beckman in the spring, some people attacked Cvijanovic as a malcontent, a kook or even worse. As it turns out, his claims against the head coach were apparently the tip of the iceberg.
Illinois had already fired Beckman a week before the season began on the basis of some preliminary findings by an external investigation. On Monday, that investigative report was finally completed (you can read it in its entirety here). The results were so appalling that it's no wonder the school also dumped athletic director Mike Thomas.
The report found that Beckman pressured players to play through injuries, berated and belittled those who did get hurt, interfered with trainers and medical personnel and threatened to take away injured players' scholarships. As the report states, "the line between aggressive coaching and inappropriate influence regarding medical decisions may be difficult to define precisely, but it was clearly and systematically crossed under Coach Beckman’s leadership."
Leadership is a questionable word choice, considering some of Beckman's alleged actions.
In maybe the most damning section of the report, the investigation found that Beckman ignored the advice of two team physicians after a player went down with a potential spinal injury in 2012. The medical staff wanted to make sure the player's head remained still, but "Beckman reportedly inserted himself to tell the player to turn his head to look at Coach Beckman so that he could tell the player that he was going to be fine."
In another situation, a team doctor said a player was "stumbling around and confused after a big hit in a game." Beckman allegedly jumped in before the concussion evaluation was complete and said, 'Hey, you're ready to play. You're OK."
During a team meeting before the 2014 spring break, Beckman is reported to have told the team, “I don’t care if you’re hurt, everyone is practicing when we get back. No one cares if you’re hurt. I don’t care. Your family may care. Northwestern doesn’t care.”
The report also says that Beckman went through several athletic trainers until he found one, Toby Harkins, more to his liking in 2013. Harkins, according to the report, would refer to a significant injury as "a minor nothing."
These are just some of the many examples of how Beckman, according to the report, "pushed players and athletic trainers beyond reasonable limits in systematic fashion." Given the current climate of intense focus on player safety, concussions and post-football health, it's mind-bending that Beckman would operate with such caveman tactics. While it's true that Beckman was under pressure to win football games with a limited roster, there's simply no justification for jeopardizing the health of young people. No parent should ever send their son off to play for a coach who prioritizes winning over safety and well-being.
A scathing report like this means heads have to roll, and that's why Thomas also got the axe on Monday. Illinois interim chancellor Barbara Wilson noted that Thomas did not violate any standards or policies and "did a good job of leading through recent challenges." But Thomas ultimately was responsible for hiring Beckman. Couple that with a struggling basketball program, and Thomas's days were clearly numbered.
Wilson said the major reason for letting Thomas go was that "it's just time for us to move forward." But Illinois still has a leadership void that might make that process difficult.
Wilson is an interim chancellor who just took that office in August. The Illini now have an interim athletic director in Paul Kowalczyk and of course an interim head football coach in Bill Cubit. Wilson and Kowalczyk said no decisions would be made on the coaching situation until after the season. Cubit's status may be helped by the fact that Illini assistant coaches largely escaped any culpability in the Beckman report, and Illinois (5-4) has a chance to make a bowl game.
But questionable leadership at the top -- neither Wilson nor Kowalczyk were very impressive in Monday's news conference following the release of the report -- means there's more confusion than clarity in Champaign right now. And Illinois knows, in painstaking detail, just how much damage a bad hire can inflict.