NCF Nation: Mike Thomas
Buckeyes fans are still giddy about the national championship, secured in large part because of Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who stepped up under the brightest of lights. Ohio State wouldn't have had a chance for a title run without J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who started all 12 regular-season games and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller always was loud with his play but incredibly quiet off of the field. That he hasn't addressed the media since re-injuring his throwing shoulder in August underscores his introverted nature. Speculation about transfers to Oregon, Florida State and everywhere in between has bubbled up, as has some buzz about a possible position switch.
From The Blade's David Briggs:
In a wide-ranging interview at the combine on Thursday, Whitfield refuted speculation Miller entertained transferring from Ohio State, said the two-time Big Ten MVP has no plans to switch positions and expressed excitement at the pace of the quarterback’s recovery from a torn labrum.
Miller recently began throwing a football for the first time since undergoing surgery in August. Twice a week, he sends Whitfield video of his throwing sessions, which have advanced to include long toss.
Asked if Miller would be full strength by the start of fall camp in August — a timetable widely considered ambitious — Whitfield said, "Oh, yeah, that’s very realistic. When the summer hits and those guys begin summer workouts [in June], he'll be 100 percent."
Whitfield had high praise for Miller, telling Briggs that while Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are standouts in their own right, Miller is a "super hero."
Miller played the role of superman for much of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, making big plays happen with his feet and his arms. He got some help from running back Carlos Hyde and others, but was unquestionably the driver of the offense. It likely won't be the case in 2015 as Ohio State returns standout running back Ezekiel Elliott and a deeper corps of receivers than Miller ever had at his disposal.
It will be interesting to see how Miller works with this new, evolved Buckeyes offense, one that asks a lot from its quarterback, but not everything. Whitfield is convinced Miller would/will shine.
From The Blade:
Had Braxton played and ... you saw the development of the running game and you saw the young receivers like Mike Thomas and Devin Smith. You saw what the defense was able to do. You saw that [offensive coordinator] Tom Herman was on a heater this year and coach [Urban] Meyer was just masterful in how they approached each team. You have a veteran like Braxton, a two-time player of the year, he can draw from all that veteran experience, I mean, they would have been looking for the Roman Army to take on if he’d been leading them.
It's such a fascinating dynamic at Ohio State as Jones, the only healthy quarterback in spring practice, seemingly would have an edge over the others. But Barrett showed during the season that he's capable of doing big things, and Miller, the best athlete of the three, has a track record that should never be discounted.
If Miller is the same athlete who has evolved in other areas, he'll be tough to beat out.
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.
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."
ESPN.com caught up with Lunt earlier this week to talk about his transfer choice and his journey to the Illini.
You've had some time to digest the decision. How do you feel about it now?
What was the toughest or the most challenging part about the process you went through before making the decision?
WL: The hardest thing with every process and this process is you have to tell somebody no. I developed a great relationship with both coaching staffs. Shawn Watson at Louisville and Charlie Strong had been so good to me throughout the process, and it was really hard to tell them no.
You chose between a program coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship and one that went 2-10 last year. How much for you was about the future than the present?
WL: Obviously, the programs are in different spots right now. I've always wanted to play for Illinois. Just staying close to home and helping your state school out, there's something to be said about that. I'm excited to try to help them and move them in a lot better direction if I can. To be honest, I didn't follow them at all last year, I didn't know how their season went.
How did Illinois come onto your radar when you were looking to transfer?
WL: My high school head coach [Derek Leonard] said they were interested if I decided to transfer, and after I got the release, Coach [Tim] Beckman called. It all started from there.
There was a lot made about the restrictions Oklahoma State placed on you (and later lifted). What was it like to deal with that as you weighed your options?
WL: It was more of a frustration Day 1, and after you find out, you've just got to go with it and accept what was given to me. More than enough schools were available. I had like 37 blocked or something, but the ones I didn't have blocked were great schools.
When some of the restrictions were lifted, did you feel like you were too far into the search?
WL: Yeah. I couldn't have talked to anybody. I just picked those first five schools because I had previous contact with them before I chose OSU coming out of high school. I knew the coaching staffs at those schools. Once they were blocked, I had two really good options. There were a lot of other schools that were interested, but those two schools [Illinois and Louisville] were great options.
What does Illinois offer you?
WL: They offer me a lot. They offer a world-class education. I'm really looking forward to getting on campus and pursuing academics. The coaches created a great relationship. No matter how long they're going to be there, we're always going to have a relationship. I'm excited to get started and get working with the team. I've always wanted to play at Illinois, so I'm really excited about it.
What did you know about Coach [Tim] Beckman and also [offensive coordinator Bill] Cubit before the search started?
WL: I knew Coach Cubit through Western Michigan because they offered me early out of high school [Cubit served as Western Michigan's head coach from 2005-12]. I never developed a huge relationship with him, just knew him a little bit. And then Coach Beckman, I didn't really know him at all. I was at OSU when that staff was hired and got on campus at Illinois. I knew he was the D-coordinator at OSU in '07 and '08. But once I got the release, they both contacted me, and throughout this month, I really talked to them a lot and built a relationship.
What about the offense Coach Cubit runs suits what you do as a quarterback?
WL: I know his previous quarterbacks at Western Michigan have thrown for a ton of yards and had a lot of success with it. They get the ball out quick. It's a fast-paced offense, so it's exciting. I'm looking forward to it.
What were your conversations like with Coach Beckman or [Illinois athletic director] Mike Thomas about coming to Illinois and playing for this staff in 2014? Do you feel confident these coaches you committed to will still be there?
WL: You can't predict the future. I know in college football, coaches are always going to bigger, better jobs, or getting fired. But I've committed to Illinois and to Coach Beckman, and I expect to play for him as long as I'm there. That's the mind-set you've got to have. I'm really happy about being coached by Coach Beckman and Coach Cubit, so I have the mind-set they'll be there as long as I am.
Did you have any conversations with Mike Thomas about Coach Beckman's future?
WL: I didn't. I talked to Mike Thomas a lot, but nothing about that.
Have you had a chance to get to know any guys on the team or anyone Illinois is recruiting?
WL: When I went on my second visit there, I met the O-line, and they told me what it was like to play for Coach Beckman. I know Malik Turner just committed, he's from SHG [Sacred Heart-Griffin High School] down in Springfield. I don't really know anybody, but I know of a lot of people, so I'm looking forward to building relationships.
What are your top priorities for this season, when you won't be playing in games?
WL: Just getting better in all aspects of my game: in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field just throwing. I'll play scout for the defense, just trying to make them be the best defense they can. It'll be a lot of getting better and learning the offense.
What do you think you've learned about yourself in the last nine months, going from a freshman starter at Oklahoma State to now a transfer for Illinois?
WL: I've learned patience. There's a lot of things you can't control. And just getting closer with my family throughout. I have someone to lean on when life gets tough. It's a fun, bumpy ride, but I loved OSU and it was a great time and it was sad to leave.
I read that you didn't really want to leave. Is it bittersweet now that you've moved on?
WL: It's definitely bittersweet. I wish the players and the coaches there the best. I'm not playing this year, so I'll follow them and see how they do.
Illinois hasn't had a lot go its way lately. Do you sense the excitement among fans about you coming to play for the Illini?
WL: Yeah, it's exciting. I grew up when Juice Williams was playing, and everyone was really excited about Illinois football. I don't know if it's that extent now, but people are excited, and I think we'll drastically improve this year, hearing from Coach Beckman and the players. I'm just excited that Illinois is getting excited about its state school.
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.
But there's little doubt Nebraska considers Eichorst a rising star in the AD ranks. Either that, or Eichorst is a brilliant contract negotiator. Perhaps it's both.
When USA Today came out with its new survey of athletic director salaries, which not surprisingly are on the rise nationally, Eichorst's compensation at Nebraska certainly stands out. His base salary of $973,000 ranks highest in the Big Ten, and his total compensation of $1,123,000 ranks second in the league behind only Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez ($1,230,000). Eichorst served as Alvarez's deputy AD from 2009-11 before taking the top job at Miami.
Here are 11 of the 12 Big Ten athletic director salaries (as a private school, Northwestern doesn't disclose AD Jim Phillips' salary), sorted from highest to lowest:
- Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: $1,230,000 ($1,143,500 from university, $86,500 in outside pay)
- Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska: $1,123,000
- Gene Smith, Ohio State: $1,099,030
- Dave Brandon, Michigan:$900,000
- Mark Hollis, Michigan State: $700,000
- Mike Thomas, Illinois: $589,250
- Norwood Teague, Minnesota: $500,000
- Gary Barta, Iowa: $490,842 ($487,842 from university, $3,000 in outside pay)
- Morgan Burke, Purdue:$464,437
- Fred Glass, Indiana: $430,746
- Dave Joyner, Penn State: $396,000
Eichorst received a one-time payment of $150,000 for moving expenses from Miami. Alvarez received a one-time payment of $118,500 for coaching the football team in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. He would have received a $50,000 bonus if Wisconsin had won the game.
Ohio State's Smith has the highest maximum bonus in the league ($250,000), followed by Michigan's Brandon and Illinois' Thomas, both at $200,000.
Alvarez and Eichorst rank fourth and fifth nationally, respectively, in total compensation. They trail Vanderbilt vice chancellor/general counsel David Williams (who oversees athletics and seemingly everything else at the school), Louisville AD Tom Jurich and Florida AD Jeremy Foley. Smith ranks seventh nationally, and Brandon is tied for 12th with Iowa State's Jamie Pollard.
Michigan State's Hollis, named 2012 athletic director of the year at the Sports Business Awards, last summer received a significant raise -- the highest bump among any incumbent AD from a public school since October 2011. Purdue's Burke is the Big Ten's longest-serving AD (started Jan. 1, 1993) but ranks near the bottom in salary. Joyner began his term as Penn State's acting AD in November 2011 after Tim Curley took leave. He had the tag removed in January and will remain in the role through the term of university president Rodney Erickson.
Looking ahead to the future Big Ten, Maryland AD Kevin Anderson earns $499,490 (max bonus of $50,000), while Rutgers' AD Tim Pernetti earns $410,000 (max bonus of $50,000).
But Southern Miss just did it with Ellis Johnson. And speculation had been mounting that Illinois would do the same with Tim Beckman after an utterly miserable 2-10 season in Year 1.
But athletic director Mike Thomas put the talk to rest Tuesday, telling ESPN Radio 95.3 in Champaign that Beckman will return for his second season in 2013.
"At the end of the day, Tim Beckman's going to be our football coach in the future," Thomas told hosts Lon Tay and Jeremy Werner. "He'll be our football coach next year."
Beckman and his staff are currently out recruiting and will do the same next week. Thomas hasn't had a chance to do a full evaluation of the program with Beckman but will do so in the near future. Among the topics they'll discuss is Beckman's staff and whether there will be some changes, as expected.
Illinois went winless in Big Ten play for the fourth time since 1997 and dropped six of eight conference games by 24 points or more. The Illini finished the season with a 50-14 loss to Northwestern. Beckman's troubles began before the season with his aggressive and highly publicized pursuit of Penn State players. He also had to apologize for chewing tobacco on the sideline and received two sideline penalties in the Northwestern loss.
Thomas noted that it takes time for a coach to settle in and get the team to buy into his approach. Beckman will get at least a little bit more.
Many Illini fans would argue the Orange and Blue already had such a distinction. But mediocre football results combined with Northwestern's marketing campaign, built around the slogan "Chicago's Big Ten team," had clouded the picture a bit.
Illinois made a power play Friday, revealing a marketing campaign built around the theme, "ILLINOIS. OUR STATE. OUR TEAM." The theme and logo will be introduced throughout the state beginning this fall.
From the news release:
The theme will be used in a variety of ways including advertising, street banners, team posters, schedule cards, stadium signage and video board graphics. ... The "ILLINOIS. OUR STATE. OUR TEAM." campaign will be incorporated into a large-scale brand evaluation program that the DIA will partner with Nike beginning in 2013. The 18-month collaboration will result in an updated brand identity including new football uniforms for 2014."
Thomas said of the campaign, "This theme becomes a way for all of our fans to rally behind one central concept -- that the University of Illinois is our state's school. As the Fighting Illini, our student-athletes, coaches and staff are proud to represent the people of Illinois and we are proud to wear the state's name on the front of our jerseys."
Thomas certainly is looking to make a splash, especially after coming under criticism for his football and men's basketball coaching searches. Rallying the fan base always is a good idea.
On the other hand, this seems like a pretty obvious response to the campaign Northwestern launched in the summer of 2010. Led by athletic director Jim Phillips and marketing chief Mike Polisky, Northwestern made a marketing push for the Chicago market, which Illinois feels is its territory, and has been successful. Now Illinois is countering with a push to claim the state.
If there was no "Chicago's Big Ten team," would there be an "Illinois. Our state. Our team." campaign?
The rivalry between the two schools -- and athletic departments, for that matter -- clearly is getting spicier, which isn't a bad thing in my book. Illinois played "Sweet Home Chicago" over the public-address system immediately after its victory against Northwestern in football last October. New Illini football coach Tim Beckman also is playing up the Northwestern series with signs in the complex.
What's your take?
Opposing coaches staking out Penn State players in the parking lot of the football program? Probably not what NCAA president Mark Emmert had in mind.
Several opposing coaches have been spotted in State College, including a sizable group from Illinois.
From ESPN.com's latest news story:
[Penn State head coach Bill] O'Brien and his colleagues walked past a group of six coaches carrying University of Illinois bags and suitcases. A Penn State official told ESPN.com that no words were exchanged between O'Brien and the Illinois contingent. O'Brien declined to identify the players who have been offered up to 50 scholarships, but Illinois assistant athletic director Kent Brown acknowledged a group of Fighting Illini coaches are on Penn State's campus to recruit "a player or two -- maybe more."
Needless to say, Illinois coach Tim Beckman will be asked about this "strategy" on Thursday at Big Ten football media days. While some will say recruiting is recruiting and Penn State players are all fair game, it doesn't seem right to have opposing coaches staking out Nittany Lions players like this.
An Illinois spokesman told ESPN.com that athletic director Mike Thomas has contacted Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner about the Illini's intentions.
Penn State sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos tweeted this morning, "We have chosen to stay at Penn State and opposing coaches are outside our apartment, was that the intention of the NCAA? #comeonman."
A group of Penn State players, including quarterback Matthew McGloin and linebacker Michael Mauti, reaffirmed their commitment to the program earlier Wednesday. Absent from the group, star running back Silas Redd, who is being targeted by USC as a potential transfer. Redd and two teammates -- defensive tackle Jordan Hill and offensive lineman John Urschel -- were scheduled to travel Wednesday to Chicago for Big Ten football media days, but Penn State said they aren't coming. Only head coach Bill O'Brien will be in attendance Thursday and Friday. Colleague Joe Schad reports Redd is still mulling his decision to stay at Penn State or leave for USC.
The NCAA is making it very easy for Penn State players to transfer, but are opposing teams going too far in their immediate pursuit of the Nittany Lions' talent? Coaches staking out players on campus just feels a lot different than trying to flip recruits at the last minute before national signing day.
How would you feel about your team's coaches staking out the Lasch Building?
Speaking of Penn State recruits, while some already have jumped ship, the team's top verbal commit, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, is taking his time to decide his future. Colleague Mitch Sherman reports that according to Hackenberg's high school coach, Micky Sullivan, Hackenberg will visit State College to get all the facts before making his decision.
Ideally, the coach said, Hackenberg would visit Penn State and reach a decision before Aug. 7, when Fork Union opens fall practice. Fork Union begins the season on Aug. 25 against Richmond (Va.) Hermitage on ESPNU.
The Hackenbergs felt a bit of shock, Sullivan said, after the announcement Monday, which included a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 40 scholarships over four years.
Hackenberg and O'Brien bonded during the recruiting process, but O'Brien needs to make a good pitch to keep arguably the nation's top quarterback recruit on board. It'll be interesting to see how the Hackenberg situation plays out.
Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).
Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.
Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:
1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million
When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:
1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million
The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).
1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000
- It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
- As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
- Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
- Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
- Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
- Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
- Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
On the night of Sept. 1, Michigan and Alabama will take center stage in Arlington, Texas, at a shrine to all things big and bold, nicknamed "Jerryworld" after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. It will mark the latest in a series of national showcase games during the regular season that take place at neutral sites.
Last year, LSU and Oregon kicked off the season on the same field. Notable neutral-site games this fall include Miami-Notre Dame at Chicago's Soldier Field and Clemson-Auburn at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The trend is clear, and many major-conference teams see the neutral-site games as a nice alternative to the home-and-home series that take longer and give up a precious home game.
Big Ten athletic directors are split on the neutral-site issue. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, who helped organize the Alabama game, said last month that the school has had preliminary talks about playing a neutral-site game at Sun Life Stadium near Miami.
Iowa opens the 2012 season against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field, and Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta recently told the Des Moines Register that he is "wide open to the concept" of more neutral-site games.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips on Wednesday expressed interest in playing a game at New York's Yankee Stadium, and, with the Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership approaching, added, "We need to get out to California some." Northwestern moved its home game against Illinois to Wrigley Field in 2010, and the teams could play again at Wrigley or Soldier Field.
Illinois AD Mike Thomas also wants a bigger presence in Chicago and could schedule a game at Soldier Field as early as 2013, the Chicago Tribune reports. The Illini used to open the season against Missouri in St. Louis, but the series is on a hiatus.
The neutral-site surge isn't for everyone, though. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com last month that he's extremely reluctant to give up a home game for a neutral-site contest.
"I love Dave Brandon at Michigan and I applaud them," Smith said. "They're playing Alabama in Dallas, which I think is cool and unique. But if I can get eight home games, the economic impact we have here, I just can't pull it away. Because it's a home game. Now if an away game, like Indiana or somebody says, 'Hey, let's go to Maryland,' and it’s their home game, I'd do that in a minute.
"But taking one of my home games, I just can't do it. The economic impact in this community is just huge."
Michigan State AD Mark Hollis has been very proactive in scheduling top nonconference opponents (Boise State, Oregon, Alabama, Miami). But those games will take place on campus.
Hollis acknowledges scheduling trends elsewhere impact what Big Ten teams do, but his position is firm.
"I'd rather bring big games into Spartan Stadium," Hollis said. "We talked to Boise State about playing in Chicago, but we had no interest in that. We want to play them at home. I want Miami there, I want Alabama there, I want Oregon, so our fans can see them."
Before agreeing to the terms, ESPN’s legal department sends me the contract to review. I read it over. Usually several times. And then I sign it and send it in.
It's all right there in print -- no gray area.
The assistants were irate and lashed out. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert called the situation "very unprofessional." They even threatened to boycott Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, adding even more controversy to a game filled with it.
But the Bizzaro Bowl Boycott won't be taking place.
Zook told ESPN colleague Gene Wojciechowski on Friday night that his former aides will show up Saturday at AT&T Park.
"They're going to coach," said Zook, when contacted by ESPN.com Friday evening. "They're [the assistants] frustrated. But they're going to coach. They know it's about the kids. But they were trying to make a point. They've got careers, family, all of those things. They're class guys. And it's important that everyone knows they're really good people."
More from the story:
The dispute centers around a contract promise that Zook said was made to several of his assistant coaches by him and former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther. According to Zook, the assistants -- Jeff Brohm, Ron West and Chip Long -- were told they would receive two-year deals which would run through the 2012 regular season. Assistant Joe Gilbert has told SI.com that he also was promised a multiyear contract.
"Somewhere -- I'm not sure how -- a couple of the contracts got changed," said Zook. "I truly believed they had two-year contracts. ... I'm not exactly sure how things got changed. I feel awful about it. They're great people and they did a great job. I don't know where it went wrong. I was under the understanding that they had two-year contracts."
I feel for the Illinois assistants. It's a bad deal for them, but it's because they signed bad deals. As athletic director Mike Thomas told SI.com, "We have a contract that's pretty clear, and we intend to honor that contract. We assume they'll honor it as well."
Boycotting would have been worse for the coaches and for the Illini players than it would have for the administration. If you want to stick it to your bosses, boycotting the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl probably isn't the best move. If you want to stick it to your players, boycotting is the way to go.
Plus, these assistants are looking for jobs. They have good credentials. But no employer wants to see "quitter" on a résumé.
Who knows what to expect Saturday afternoon in San Francisco? But at least the Illini assistants with be with the players they've coached all season.
Illinois officially introduced former Toledo coach Tim Beckman as its new football head coach this afternoon. Athletic director Mike Thomas described Beckman as a "guy that makes caffeine nervous" because of his energy and motor, and Beckman did not disappoint. He spoke in a near-shout and was very enthusiastic about becoming the new Illini coach. Of course, energy wasn't really the problem with the last guy.
Some other notes and quotes from the news conference:
- Thomas said Beckman was given a five-year contract worth $9 million in guaranteed compensation. That's a hefty raise from Beckman's $400,000 salary at Toledo, but it's still relatively cheap by Big Ten standards. Illinois appeared willing to pay when it reportedly went after coaches like Houston's Kevin Sumlin, but it didn't have to break the bank for Beckman.
- Though Beckman doesn't have many ties to Illinois and didn't recruit the area much at Toledo, he did a nice job of throwing in references to Dick Butkus and Red Grange. And he noted that most of his Toledo players were from Ohio, and he would try to continue the practice of having many local players on the roster. He said Chicago and St. Louis in particular would be huge areas for his program. "We're going to recruit this area as hard as anyone has ever recruited this area before," he said. "You not only gain a football talent, you also gain a person who can fit into this program."
- Beckman might not have history with Illinois, but he does with the Big Ten. His father coached at Iowa among many other stops, and Beckman has spent most of his life in the Midwest. When asked how long he'd wanted to be a Big Ten head coach, he put his hand a couple feet off the ground and said, "Since I was about this high. ... I've always cherished Big Ten football. It was a dream. Now I have the opportunity to live that dream."
- He did not make any announcements on staff hirings, but Beckman praised his Toledo assistants and said he'd like to bring as many of them to Champaign as possible. He said he would meet with all the current Illinois coaches on staff in the next two days. As to whether he might keep defensive coordinator and interim head coach Vic Koenning, Beckman said Koenning has done a great job but he has not met him yet.
- Thomas said Beckman has "a little bit of a swagger to him," which he likes. He said Beckman "fits Illinois in so many ways." Thomas talked to Jim Tressel, one of Beckman's old bosses, and heard high praise about him.
- Beckman promised a high-energy team. "As you can tell by the way I am, we're going to be intense," he said. He also promised that alumni would be proud of the image that the team presents to the community.
- Illinois will play Ohio State, leading to Beckman facing a coach he once worked for, Urban Meyer: "Can't wait," he said. "Urban and I are great, great friends. We like competing against each other." Beckman also borrowed a line Meyer used at his news conference last month when talking about Illinois: "It's not broken."
- Beckman will go to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but only as a spectator. He said his job now is to recruit. That makes two Big Ten head coaches who are employed but are only recruiting right now while their teams prepare for bowls.
- Beckman wore an Illini-colored orange tie. He said he bought it on Thursday, because at Toledo he had the team burn everything they had that was orange, the color of the Rockets' main rival, Bowling Green. He said he only referred to Bowling Green as the "team down south" and now will only call Northwestern "the team up north." "You'll never see me wearing purple," he said.
- Thomas said he talked to both head coaches and assistants during his search, but at the end he thought the program needed someone familiar with being a CEO. He said he gauged what people thought of the Illini program while talking to candidates and still believes the team can win championships there. "We're nowhere near our ceiling," he said.