Friday, December 9, 2011
Beckman will have to win over Illini fans
By Adam Rittenberg
Tim Beckman must change the culture at Illinois and bring consistency to the program.
The next time a Big Ten fan base gets excited about a MAC coach likely will be the first.
Big Ten fans want big names, even if they're more hyped than proven. There's a sense that Big Ten programs should be able to reach further than the MAC, even though the MAC has produced some excellent major-conference coaches, many of whom have done well in the Big Ten. Some are known only by their first names: Woody, Bo and Ara. All three succeeded at Big Ten programs after coming from a MAC school, Miami (Ohio).
Still, coaching searches are often the time when fan perception meets program reality. It happened this week at Illinois.
The rumor mill began buzzing Tuesday that Illinois was close to a deal with Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Regarded as a rising star in coaching, Sumlin is one of those names that gets fans excited, even if his track record doesn't quite match the hype around him. He runs an exciting offense at Houston, led by quarterback Case Keenum. He's a Big Ten guy (Purdue product) who had great success as a Big 12 assistant. Perhaps most important, he's wanted by others.
I never bought the Sumlin-to-Illinois talk. With a vacancy at Texas A&M, it makes too much sense for Sumlin to eventually move up the road to College Station. Illinois wanted him, but he didn't want Illinois. Predictably, the Sumlin buzz died down and Toledo's Tim Beckman became the target for Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.
There's a lot to like about Beckman. He's an Ohio native who knows the Big Ten and has recruited well, particularly in his home state. He has worked for successful programs (Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Bowling Green) and for successful head coaches (Mike Gundy, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer). He took over a Toledo program dealing with a point-shaving scandal and led the Rockets to 8-win seasons in each of the past two years. He's known as a tireless worker with a fiery personality.
I have a feeling Illinois fans will feel better about the hire after Friday's news conference.
But some still will only see "MAC coach." And that's fine. Beckman will have to win them over by winning. If he mirrors what former Toledo coach Gary Pinkel has done at Missouri, or what former Toledo coach Nick Saban did at Michigan State, or what Bo, Woody and Ara did at Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern, respectively, no one will remember where he came from.
When Thomas announced Ron Zook's firing, he noted that his track record shows he hires coaches with previous experience leading programs. He didn't add that he hires them from the MAC, as he brought both Brian Kelly and Butch Jones to Cincinnati from Central Michigan. Kelly had historic success at Cincinnati before moving onto Notre Dame, while Jones has the Bearcats at 9-3 this season. The Beckman hire follows the pattern for Thomas, who also reportedly expressed interest in two other MAC head-coaches: Eastern Michigan's Ron English and Temple's Steve Addazio.
If Beckman succeeds at Illinois, Thomas will be hailed as strong evaluator of under-the-radar coaches. If Beckman fails, Thomas will be seen as an AD who couldn't reel in the big fish. While Illinois reportedly was willing to spend big bucks for Sumlin, Beckman likely comes as a bargain, as he made $400,000 at Toledo.
Beckman inherits some talent at Illinois. Talent never was the problem for Zook, who recruited well. But Beckman will need to develop players better than his predecessor.
There are some potential concerns with Beckman, namely that he's a defensive coach whose defenses didn't exactly rank among the nation's best.
Here's a look:
2011 (Toledo): 76th in total defense, 89th in scoring defense
2010 (Toledo): 56th in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2009 (Toledo): 95th in total defense, 116th in scoring defense
2008 (Oklahoma State): 93rd in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2007 (Oklahoma State): 101st in total defense, 79th in scoring defense
To be fair, fielding a decent defense in the MAC is no easy task. But Toledo also surrendered 63 points in back-to-back games, including a 63-60 loss to Northern Illinois in which Beckman's timeout decisions came under heavy scrutiny.
Beckman could win points with many Illini fans by retaining Vic Koenning as his defensive coordinator. Koenning has done a masterful job with Illinois' defense, which boasts an All-American in defensive end Whitney Mercilus and ranked No. 7 nationally in yards allowed, No. 4 against the pass, No. 5 in tackles for loss and No. 9 in sacks. Whether their defensive philosophies match remains to be seen, but Beckman certainly should consider keeping Koenning.
His bigger task will be establishing consistency with an Illinois program that hasn't seen nearly enough in the past two decades. Although Illinois has reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-92, the team has too often been a tease, arguably never more so than this season when it started 6-0 and finished 0-6. The talent has been in Champaign, but Illinois has been too fragile of a team. Beckman must change the culture.
Some coaches create buzz just by showing up (see: Meyer, Urban). Others create it by what they do on the field.
Beckman must show he can do the latter at Illinois.