Just one week before their season opener, the Illinois Fighting Illini have fired football coach Tim Beckman amid allegations of influencing medical decisions and pressuring players to play hurt, athletic director Mike Thomas announced Friday.
Thomas issued a statement that said the dismissal was related to preliminary results of an external review into the allegations, which also included efforts to avoid reporting players' injuries.
Beckman said those allegations were "utterly false" and suggested he might take legal action, calling the decision to fire him "a rush to judgment that confirms the university's bad faith."
"I firmly deny the implications in Mike's statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players," Beckman said in a statement, noting that many of his players today indicated their support.
Former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic initially made allegations on Twitter in May, leading to the university's launch of the review, which is not yet complete.
"The preliminary information external reviewers shared with me does not reflect our values or our commitment to the welfare of our student-athletes, and I've chosen to act accordingly," Thomas said. "During the review, we have asked people not to rush to judgment, but I now have enough information to make this decision in assessing the status and direction of the football program."
Thomas, who informed the team Friday of the decision to fire Beckman, also said in the statement that there were instances in which players were treated inappropriately as to whether they could remain on scholarship during their senior year if they weren't on the team.
"Both of those findings are unsettling violations of University policy and practice and do not reflect the culture that we wish to create in athletic programs for our young people," Thomas said in the statement. "I expect my coaches to protect players and foster their success on and off the field."
In a news conference later Friday afternoon, Thomas said he was briefed on the initial findings of the investigations for the first time earlier this week.
"I was shocked and angry," he said. The decision to fire Beckman was "my call," Thomas said.
The school said Beckman, who went 12-25 -- and 4-20 in Big Ten play -- in three seasons at Illinois, will not receive the $3.1 million remaining on the final two years of his five-year contract.
Beckman said in a statement that the decision to fire him violated his contract, adding that he will "vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights."
Cvijanovic first raised his allegations on Twitter and said Beckman forced him to play through shoulder and knee injuries in 2013 and '14. He accused the team's medical staff of removing the meniscus in his left knee without his consent. A few former players came forward to echo Cvijanovic's claims.
"I'd like to say that it is definitely a step in the right direction and that, following the findings of the university, I am calling a meeting of the University of Illinois, the Big Ten and the NCAA to discuss how to move forward," Cvijanovic said. "Clearly the current system of medical reporting and student-athlete representation needs to be addressed."
Cvijanovic was among the current and former players and recruits who tweeted Friday after Beckman's firing was announced.
I appreciate all the support I have received. Huge step in bettering athletics and in helping us prevent future wrongdoings. #Illini
— Simon Cvijanović (@IlliniSi) August 28, 2015
Thomas expects the findings of the review, which was conducted by an independent law firm, to be publicly released at some point during the season. More than 90 people have been interviewed and nearly 200,000 documents have been inspected during the investigation, and practice and game film have also been reviewed.
Bill Cubit, who was hired as offensive coordinator in 2013, will take over as the team's interim coach for the 2015 season, pending approval by the board of trustees. Cubit was the head coach at Western Michigan from 2005 to '12. Thomas said Cubit would be considered for the full-time head coaching job "if he's interested," though the school is a couple of months away from doing any serious work on finding Beckman's successor.
Illinois opens the season next Friday against Kent State. Thomas said firing a coach this close to the start of the season "is really foreign territory" but he believes the leadership and character of the team can help it get through the situation.
Less than an hour before the announcement, Beckman made reference to the team's upcoming opener on his Twitter account.
— Tim Beckman (@coachbeckman) August 28, 2015
ESPN's Dan Murphy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.