Chicago Colleges: Mike Thomas
Gary T. from Huntsville, Alabama, writes: This is most certainly the last year for Beckman if he doesn't get to at least a six-win season. This would be very surprising given the talent he has and the schedule the Illini play. As an alum, though, I would rather have a clean program with good kids than a 10-win season with players being arrested. ... Given my long history as a Cubs fan and an Illini fan, please just make them entertaining.
Mark M. from Palatine, Illinois, writes: Nothing he can do would make me want to bring him back. It hurts me to say I almost hope he only wins three or four games so we can finally get rid of him. I am tired of reading about the potential Illini recruits and seeing that the only other schools pursuing them are schools like Toledo, Ball State, Western Michigan, South Dakota State, etc. What a joke!
Tony from Wauconda, Illinois, writes: What would it take for Tim Beckman to excite the Illini nation? I think six wins and a mediocre bowl game would be enough if Illinois played and beat another Power 5 team. At the end of Ron Zook's run, bowl wins over Baylor and UCLA at least let Illini fans feel like our team was helping the B1G from being embarrassed in bowl season. Six wins means Illinois either wins three games in conference or else gets two conference wins with a nice road win in Pac-12 country. That would be enough to secure Beckman's job and probably get a few more people to buy tickets. ... If they can consistently score around 30 points a game I think more fans might show up to watch an exciting offense. I have high hopes for Wes Lunt working in that offense and hope that six or seven wins can happen this year.
Virgel from Valdosta, Georgia, writes: I hope that the Illini do better. I mean, you know things are bad when Cubs fans have more hope for a World Series over Illinois making an upper-level bowl game. I must say, though, there are several little things to give a glimmer of hope, but it all needs to come together. I have been stationed in Valdosta, Georgia, for seven years now and all I have ever wanted is for Illinois to make a bowl game in Florida. Besides, I need Illinois to do better; it is hard to wear an Illini shirt in the crossroads of Auburn, Florida, Florida State and Georgia.
Brian Bennett: As you can see, a lot of Illini fans need to see a bowl game this year from their team in order to get behind a Year 4 for Beckman. Of course, they won't be making that decision; athletic director Mike Thomas will. Three years used to be way too short of a time period to fire a coach, but everything is accelerated these days. As Tony points out, a six-win season would include either a solid nonconference win or a respectable 3-5 Big Ten record. That should absolutely secure Beckman a fourth season. A five-win campaign in Champaign will make things very interesting, and anything less could spell the end of Beckman's tenure.
Brian Bennett: That's a good point, Ron, and one that colleague Rod Gilmore expounds upon in this piece. I definitely see the potential problems for players who sign early, only to see the head coach leave or get fired. Whatever line people might feed you about players committing to a school and not the coach is simply a bunch of bull. So I would want to see one important clause instituted in any early signing period: If there is a significant coaching change (head coach or coordinator) after the player signs, he would have the right to renounce his letter of intent and be eligible to sign again in the February period. Some players might still stick to their original school in that scenario, but at least they'd have the freedom to make the decision.
Brian Bennett: I have written that the Midwest should host a College Football Playoff championship game and that Minneapolis is an excellent option. Indianapolis would be just as good. I'd say the odds are pretty good that Minneapolis will get a Final Four, and along with the Super Bowl, that gives the city a great opportunity to show it can host huge events. I just don't know if the Big Ten title game will be coming to the Twin Cities any time soon. The league really likes the central location of Indianapolis and how well that city has put on the game so far. It might just stay there for a while.
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.
"[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.
Here are some notes from Day 1:
Although increasing athletic scholarships to federal cost of attendance figures isn't a new topic in the Big Ten -- the league first proposed it three years ago -- it generated plenty of discussion Tuesday as change is finally on the horizon. There are details that must be worked out concerning Title IX and how overall athletic budgets will be affected.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said a full cost-of-attendance plan for all Illini athletes would cost approximately $1 million per year. But the numbers vary by institution.
"You're going to have to have a standard formula all schools are going to have to adhere to," Thomas said, "knowing that the numbers might still look different."
Added Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst: "Over time, each institution is sharing how financial aid works on their campus and how they see a possible opportunity to put more resources in the system to cover the gap."
The ADs also discussed how to improve travel for players, whether it's getting them home or getting their families to events.
"Is it two trips? Is it three? Is it just going home a certain time of the year? Or is it bowls? Or families visiting?" Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "Those details are yet to be worked out I think, and how does that factor into the full cost of attendance?"
Despite a move to nine league games in 2016, non-league scheduling remains a challenge for the ADs, especially with the Big Ten prohibiting contests with FCS opponents. Thomas admits the inventory of opponents is smaller, which can increase costs of bringing in opponents that don't require return games. He added that a nine-game league schedule makes it harder to play neutral-site games because of the demand for seven home games every year.
"It's hard for us to move off campus and take a game away from our stadium, that's my biggest issue," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars. You've got to serve the people."
Despite the SEC and ACC announcing recently that they would keep an eight-game league schedule, the Big Ten has no plans to ditch its move to nine.
ODDS AND ENDS
- Joyner said new Penn State coach James Franklin has been "everything I thought he was an more, in a positive way," during his first four months on the job. "He's high energy, he's high ethics, he's high competitiveness," Joyner said.
- Eichorst said he has had nothing to do with the improving public image of coach Bo Pelini, who has boosted his popularity since his blowups both during and after last season's loss to Iowa. "Bo's the same guy that I met when I arrived on campus," Eichorst said. "I see those sort of qualities from him on a day-to-day basis. What's out there in the community and the perception and all that other sort of stuff is certainly hard to control. He's a good ball coach, a good person. He's serious about his craft and very disciplined in his approach and we're lucky to have him at Nebraska."
- Teague said the upcoming College Football Playoff generated little to no discussion Tuesday. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, a member of the selection committee, likely will address the group before the meetings end Wednesday.
More to come Wednesday as the meetings finish. Delany will address the media around 3 p.m. ET.
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Chris from Bellport, N.Y., writes: Adam, I saw a projection for Michigan this year of 8-4, which seems reasonable at this point based on the unanswered questions remaining for the team. My question is everyone looks at the three tough road games as three potential losses. I think if they can win one of Ohio or MSU they could go 2-1 in those, but what about the fact that they don't have Wisconsin, Iowa, or Nebraska on the schedule this year? Is that cause for a little more optimism, not having the potential top three in the west on the schedule?
Adam Rittenberg: It could be, Chris, but Michigan shouldn't look past anyone on its schedule. I know Michigan owns Minnesota, but the Gophers should give the Wolverines a better game Sept. 27 when they visit Ann Arbor. Michigan needed miracle plays to beat Northwestern the past two seasons. Indiana gave the Wolverines' defense all sorts of problems last season at the Big House. Don't get me wrong: Michigan's season likely hinges on those three road games. But just because Michigan beats Michigan State or Ohio State doesn't mean it's guaranteed to sweep the other nine contests. Fifteen years ago? Sure. But those days are over.
Adam Rittenberg: This scenario would put athletic director Mike Thomas in a tough spot. Some Illini fans have wanted Tim Beckman gone from the middle of his first season. Attendance has been poor and enthusiasm remains tepid. It's really not that hard to make bowl games in this environment, and three consecutive seasons without a bowl would make it tough for Beckman to return. Remember that Ron Zook's teams still made bowls -- and won them -- in his final two years. Recruiting definitely plays a part and Thomas wants to see his hire work out, but there could be too much external pressure for a change.
Adam Rittenberg: Tom, not to dodge your question, but it really depends on what happens around the league. Conference perception really depends on what's happening at the top, not the middle, where Rutgers would presumably be if it surprises some teams. Are the Big Ten's elite teams beating top teams from other leagues in nonconference play or in bowls? Is a Big Ten team reaching the playoff or winning the national title? Those are more important factors. So if Rutgers prevents Michigan State or Ohio State from reaching the playoff, some will say it points to a weak Big Ten. But if the Big Ten performs well in nonleague games and bowls, and if Rutgers happens to finish 8-4 with a nice win or two, it enhances the perception of both the conference and Rutgers.
Adam Rittenberg: Chin up, PurdueMan. The Boilers will be better in 2014. I watched a practice this spring and take more from those workouts than spring games, which are often misleading and overblown by fans. Don't get me wrong; there are concerns, from depth along the offensive line to linebacker to certain spots in the secondary. Purdue was a mess last season, and it's hard to fix all those problems in one offseason. But I see more cohesion on offense and multiple options at running back (Raheem Mostert, Akeem Hunt) and wide receiver. The defensive line could be a strength, as tackle Ra'Zahn Howard has a chance to be one of the league's surprise players. I also get the sense Purdue had no team chemistry last season. Things have changed. As quarterback Austin Appleby told me, "The guys that aren't all about it are getting suffocated by us. Those guys eliminate themselves."
Adam Rittenberg: It would be interesting to see this, rtXC, after the current contracts expire. Several playoffs would be competed by then, so we would have a better idea if the SEC's model helped, hurt or didn't impact itself or other leagues. It comes down to how united these other leagues would be in their opposition to the SEC's model. The Pac-12 coaches seem pretty ticked, but I don't know if other leagues would care enough to band together in this way. Maybe if one of their champions is shut out of the playoff in favor of a SEC division runner-up, things would change.
Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.
Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.
I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.
Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.
Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.
The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.
Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.
Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.
That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.
Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.
BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?
AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.
As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.
BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?
BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?
AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.
BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?
AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.
BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?
AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.
The ultimate goal for the 2014 Illini, however, is pretty clear. Entering Beckman's third season, the program needs to show more improvement and get to a bowl game after going 2-10 and 4-8 the past two seasons.
Beckman understands that and all but promised more.
"We've got to be better," he said Monday. "We've got to win more football games. We all understand that. There's no question about that. So we're going to win more football games."
Beckman said he is not under any sort of mandate from athletic director Mike Thomas to make a bowl this season, but a disgruntled fan base may not show much more patience. Illinois had gone to back-to-back bowl games before Beckman arrived in Champaign.
“We’ve got to showcase that we’re getting better,” Beckman said. “That would be five, six [wins].
"Heck, my wife locks the door in December because she wants to be at a bowl game. ... I push myself to get our football team to a bowl game because I enjoy going to bowl games. Has anybody told me or pressured me by saying you’ve got to get to a bowl game? No. I’m my worst critic, so pushing myself to get to a bowl game is definitely something I want to do.”
The Illini have eight home games in 2014 and should go at least 3-1 in the nonconference schedule, as Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State all come to Memorial Stadium. They will be a considerable underdog in a Week 3 trip to Washington, however, and the Big Ten schedule includes crossover games against East Division opponents Ohio State and Penn State.
Illinois must break in a new quarterback this season, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is a talented option and the favorite to win the job. Beckman said Monday that he'd probably name a starter by the end of spring practice.
Beckman brought back his entire coaching staff from 2013, including embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks. This spring is a crucial time for the defense to make as many strides forward as the offense did a season ago. And the entire team will need to make notable progress this fall or else the prospects of a Year 4 under Beckman become much dimmer.
The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.
Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.
Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?
We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.
"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."
Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.
The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
Here are the schedules:
Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska
Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue
Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska
The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.
Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.
The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").
The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).
"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.
"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.
"I would certainly support it."
Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.
"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.
"It makes things really exciting."
America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.
So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.
"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.
"So we're concerned."
The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.
The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.
"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.
Here are some areas of focus:
Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections
In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.
"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."
Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.
Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.
"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."
Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.
Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.
The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.
Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.
"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."
“The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.
Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.” Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."
Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."
Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.
"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."
Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.
Ticketing and timing
Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.
Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.
Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.
Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.
Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.
"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.
As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.
"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."
Now it's official: Beckman will be back, athletic director Mike Thomas told WCIA-TV's Matt Wettersten on Monday. Beckman is just 1-15 in Big Ten play and 6-18 overall at Illinois, but he has three years left on his contract and Illinois has had to pay buyouts to Beckman's predecessor Ron Zook as well as basketball coaches Bruce Weber and Jolette Law.
"I'm confident that Tim can get us to where we want to go," Thomas told WCIA.
The Illini doubled their victory total from two to four in Beckman's second season and made significant strides on offense under new coordinator Bill Cubit, rising from 119th nationally to 52nd. The defense backslid this fall, ranking 110th in yards allowed and 116th against the run.
Beckman's staff went through a significant overhaul after the 2012 season, as he hired five new assistants. More changes likely are on the way, especially on defense, as Illinois must improve a young unit next fall.
There was talk of dumping Beckman after his first year on the job, and that chatter isn't going away until he shows significant progress. But every coach deserves three years to get things on track, especially at a program that has struggled for consistency.
Beckman will get that chance in 2014, a pivotal year for himself and the Illini.
- Nebraska's season took another interesting plot twist, a good one for Bo Pelini, Tom Shatel writes. Like a 1962 win in the Big House, Nebraska's latest victory provides reason to believe.
- Minnesota's fortunes and performance have turned for the better, Tom Powers writes. The Gophers' Year 3 turnaround has even surprised Jerry Kill.
- Coaching mistakes have Michigan in crisis mode under Brady Hoke, Bob Wojnowski writes.
- Andrew Logue examines Iowa's bowl possibilities this year. Iowa's final two regular-season games carry plenty of weight.
- Tom Oates wonders whether anyone will take notice of surging Wisconsin.
- The numbers illustrate a painfully average season for Penn State.
- Tom Dienhart's Week 11 lessons in the Big Ten.
- Ohio State is being treated more like Boise State in the BCS standings, Doug Lesmerises writes.
- Despite Illinois' continued Big Ten struggles, athletic director Mike Thomas sees some progress.
- A good smattering of content from Indiana's win against Illinois.
- Purdue's latest report card.
The Illini announced on Thursday that they would play a home-and-home series with the Tar Heels in 2015 and '16. The first game will be in Chapel Hill on Sept. 19, 2015, with UNC coming to Champaign on Sept. 10, 2016.
If you're not too jazzed about North Carolina as an opponent, well, there's not much else that will get you excited on these schedules. Take a look:
Sept. 5: Kent State
Sept. 12: Western Illinois
Sept. 19: at North Carolina
Sept. 26: Middle Tennessee
Sept. 3: Murray State
Sept. 10: North Carolina
Sept. 17: Western Michigan
Sept. 2: Ball State
Sept. 9: at South Florida
Sept. 16: Western Kentucky
The Big Ten is making a push for upgraded nonconference schedules throughout the league, but Illinois isn't exactly embracing that wholeheartedly. North Carolina could be a solid team by 2015 because Larry Fedora is a good coach. But just look at that 2017 schedule.
Illinois AD Mike Thomas said in a school release that the program wants to keep an opponent from the five power conferences on the schedule every season. That doesn't happen in '17, unless USF somehow finds its way into the ACC or Big 12. The Illini are also playing an FCS team in '16 despite the conference's intention to eliminate those games.
Remember that the Big Ten goes to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. Illinois is not really in the business of competing for national championships or the College Football Playoff right now, so you can understand why the Illini might want to take it easy outside of those nine Big Ten showdowns. The program is signaling that the first priority is to schedule some wins so it can get to a bowl. Minnesota has done the same thing of late, and the strategy does make sense.
Still, there's not much here that an Illinois fan can get pumped up about when dreaming of future seasons.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Illinois will host a football game in the city it covets but rarely has captured, at least in recent years. Already at their victory total from last season, the Illini on Saturday take on No. 17 Washington at Soldier Field, making their first appearance on the lakefront since 1994 and just their second ever.
Billed as Illinois' Chicago Homecoming, the game caps off a weekend of events, including a luncheon with Dick Butkus, a Chicago native who launched his legend at Illinois and cemented it with the Chicago Bears. Butkus, a two-time All-American linebacker and Big Ten MVP who led the Illini to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win against Washington 50 years ago, also will toss the coin before the game.
"We need to do something for the Chicago area because so many kids are leaving the state," Butkus told ESPN.com. "I just feel Illinois, with the largest number of alumni in the city of any school, we should be able to do a better job of recruiting kids out of here. We've got guys going to LSU, USC, the Michigans, Ohio States and Notre Dames, and even Northwestern.
"We've got to get back to getting our own kids to go to our own school."
The school's promotional video for the game is appropriately set to Diddy's "Coming Home," in which Skylar Grey sings:
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home, I'm coming home.
It will take more than rain to wash away the pain from the 2012 season, when Illinois went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game, or forgive the program's inability to capitalize on a Rose Bowl run in 2007 and a series of elite players who became high NFL draft picks. But for the first time in more than a year, the sun shone on the Illini, whose 45-17 victory against a good Cincinnati team last Saturday couldn't have come at a better time.
"It was important, especially beating a very good football team," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told ESPN.com. "I know there's buzz around the program. You would think there would be an impact moving forward with the game this weekend."
While Grey sings of kingdoms, Thomas in August 2011 famously proclaimed that he wanted Illinois to become "king of Chicago." He had recently become Illinois' AD, and his ambitious approach made sense for a school with a huge alumni/fan presence in the market but one that had largely disappeared from the sporting radar, at least in football.
Illinois moved the needle to start the 2011 season, recording its first 6-0 start in 60 years. The Illini proceeded to make history of a different sort, dropping the rest of their regular-season games to become the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. The collapse cost coach Ron Zook his job, and Thomas' hiring of Tim Beckman -- after being rebuffed by Kevin Sumlin and others -- didn't inspire much excitement in Chicago and around the state.
And then the 2012 season happened, when nothing went right for Beckman and his team. The clunky campaign ended with a 50-14 loss at rival Northwestern, which had combined consistent on-field success with an effective marketing campaign ("Chicago's Big Ten team) to make a dent in Chicago's saturated sports market.
Illinois entered this season as a near-consensus last-place pick, and its homecoming game at Soldier Field -- scheduled before the 2012 season -- looked like a tough sell, if not an impossible one, to a fan base that, despite its size, puts basketball first and seems quick to dismiss the football program, even in better times.
That's why the Cincinnati win could be so important. It allowed Illinois fans, including those in the Chicago area, to feel good about their program for the first time in a while.
"It gives us a sense of an identity," said senior wide receiver Miles Osei, who grew up near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Ill. "People in the Chicago area and people that follow Illinois football can sense that. Maybe in the past they haven't had that much of an identity, but we're definitely establishing it."
When Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side, Illinois had a much stronger presence in the city. He remembers facing future Illini teammates such as Jim Grabowski and Gregg Schumacher in city playoff games.
Illinois coach Pete Elliott and his staff relentlessly recruited city players. Bill Taylor lured Butkus out of Vocational High School. But the slush-fund scandal in 1966 led to Elliott's resignation, followed by 13 losing seasons in the next 14 years.
Butkus recalls that most of Elliott's assistants went to work for Levi Strauss in sales after things fell apart in Champaign.
"Dammit, those guys knew how to sell," Butkus said. "They were a young group, just great guys. You wanted to play for 'em. We had talented guys. I just do not understand why we have a tough time recruiting out of here. I guess playing at Soldier Field, we're trying to get the presence going, but you've got to work the high schools."
Beckman and his assistants are trying to do just that. They held three camps in the area this summer and a spring scrimmage at Gately Stadium on the city's South Side.
Zook made local recruiting splashes with players such as Martez Wilson and Juice Williams, both Chicago natives (Williams also attended Vocational High). The pipeline to elite prospects since has dried up a bit, although Aaron Bailey, a four-star quarterback from Chicago suburb Bolingbrook, headlined the 2013 class.
"It's huge," Beckman said. "It's not like three guys are up there and they recruit Chicago. Every coach on this staff has a piece of Chicago, so that everybody in that city gets to meet our coaching staff, from quarterback coach to DB coach.
"We're not to where we want to be, but we’ve definitely made strides."
"That's been baffling me for 48 years," he said. "I don't understand it."
He hopes the Chicago homecoming can be a starting point, and the mood around the game and the events undoubtedly will be better after the Cincinnati win. The hope is that the good feelings will translate into more butts in seats on Saturday.
As of Tuesday, Illinois was approaching 40,000 tickets sold, according to Jason Heggemeyer, the school's associate athletic director for ticketing and sales. Thomas said 50,000 "might be a little bit ambitious" but added that the school's Chicago-based fans often wait to buy tickets for events like Illinois' annual basketball game at the United Center. The walk-up crowd also could be good.
"You’d hope Saturday's win would resonate with a good number of people," Thomas said. "We haven't played up there since the early 90s."
The weekend will be a test run of sorts, as Thomas is interested in playing more football games in Chicago. After launching the "Illinois. Our State. Our Team" marketing campaign in August 2012 and forming a Chicago athletics advisory board in February, Thomas is looking for different and more aggressive ways to brand Illinois in the area.
"You can't take a day off," Thomas said. "Year in and year out, you've got to have a real presence up there, and I don't think in the past that's been the case."
Thomas is right about the recent past, but there was a time when Illinois football truly resonated in the Midwest's largest market. Butkus lived through it, and he wants to bring it back.
"Shoot, we'd all like to play in the BCS championship, but that's not where we're at right now," he said. "At least give the team some support. If they know of anybody or their own kids looking to play, why wouldn't you go to Illinois? It's a great school.
"We've just got to spread the word and get people more excited about it."
Lunt, who passed for 1,108 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman at Oklahoma State, picked Illinois ahead of Sugar Bowl champion Louisville. He'll sit out the 2013 season and have three seasons of eligibility left with the Illini.
Although Lunt is a Rochester, Ill., native, his transfer choice is sure to raise some eyebrows given the seemingly opposite trajectories of Illinois and Louisville. Some are already wondering whether Beckman will have an opportunity to coach Lunt in 2014. Beckman faced heavy criticism during a disastrous first season as Illini coach, and there was some talk Illinois would part ways with the coach following the 2-10 clunker.
There's no denying Beckman needed some good news after nothing went right in Year 1. Illinois made a very strong push for Lunt, reportedly having former Illini quarterback Jeff George, who transferred to the school from Purdue, meet Lunt during his visit to Champaign. This is a big victory for Beckman, who landed Lunt despite all of his problems last season and a surging competitor in Louisville. How big? There's a better chance you'll see Beckman on the Illini sideline in 2014 with Lunt potentially calling signals.
Lunt wouldn't have made this decision if he thought Illinois would fire Beckman after just two seasons at the helm. He's taking a bit of a gamble as another 2-10 season -- or worse -- could spell the end for Beckman. But Illinois doesn't want to make another change in a program that has seen too much of it in recent years, and athletic director Mike Thomas certainly doesn't want to dump the guy he hired after only two seasons. What does that say to the next group of candidates? Illinois must show some improvement under Beckman in Year 2, which quite frankly won't be hard. Just take a step this season. The team has a clear offensive vision under new coordinator Bill Cubit that attracted Lunt. A few more wins and a sliver of hope for the future -- along with Lunt waiting in the wings -- should be enough to earn Beckman a third season.
The Lunt transfer is some rare good news and a much-needed off-the-field victory for Beckman, who can use any positive momentum after last year's disaster. But how much impact this move will have on Beckman's future is questionable at best, in my view.
Though Lunt and his family clearly must have checked in with Thomas and the Illini administration on their commitment to Beckman before deciding to come to Champaign, spring-time assurances of job security are worth about as much as a Hasheem Thabeet rookie card. I firmly believe that Thomas will give Beckman every chance to succeed and that he has no desire to dump his first major coaching hire at Illinois after just two seasons. But I also believe that if the Illini limp into November with only one or two wins and the Memorial Stadium stands are empty, then Thomas will be worried about the impact on his athletic department's bottom line, not some promise to or the promise of a transfer quarterback waiting in the wings.
Besides, do we even know if Lunt is worth all this hype? His numbers last year at Oklahoma State weren't great, and while he deserves credit for playing as a true freshman, the Cowboys' system usually makes stars out of its signal-callers. There's no guarantee that Lunt is better than Aaron Bailey, who was considered one of the jewels of Beckman's 2013 signing class.
Landing Lunt helps Illinois' depth and sends a signal that Beckman can still attract top talent. Ultimately, whether Beckman is still around to coach Lunt in 2014 depends on whether the Illini can show even modest improvement in 2013.
The decision by World of Beer, a new bar in Evanston, to host the Illinois event could be described as bad business. Especially when a group of Northwestern students -- members of World of Beer's target market -- organized their own "welcome" event for Illinois coaches and fans on May 8.
World of Beer called an audible Tuesday, saying the Illinois event has been cancelled.
From The Daily Northwestern:
Owner Ted Mavrakis said his decision to cancel the rally was influenced by Northwestern students organizing against it on social media.
"I don't want to alienate the community in which we live, so I made the decision," Mavrakis said.
Illinois athletic department spokesman Kent Brown said he did not know why Mavrakis nixed the party, "but it is his right as a bar owner." The May 8 stop will be rescheduled at a yet-to-be-announced venue in Chicago, Brown said.
Although it would have been a fun/awkward scene next week, this is a good move for both sides. The bar doesn't turn off one of its main customer groups, and Illinois avoids an awkward scene of being heckled and mocked at its own coaches' caravan event. Media members rarely cover these types of events, but I bet a TV crew or two would have shown up at World of Beer next week -- and it would have looked bad for Illinois. As of Thursday morning, 285 Northwestern fans had signed up to attend the response organized by the "Wildside" student section.
The Wildside now is encouraging its members to go to World of Beer on Wednesday anyway. That's a win for the bar.
The good news is Illinois can pick one of the thousands of Chicago bars to hold its caravan event. That should have been the plan from the beginning.