By Colleen Kane, Chicago Tribune reporter
8:56 PM EDT, October 20, 2012
Seven games, five losses, one recruiting faux pas and a pinch of chewing tobacco into his tenure, Illinois coach Tim Beckman will enter Memorial Stadium on Saturday for his first homecoming game.
And there already is a faction that wants to kick Beckman and the man who hired him out of the house.
Pages of message board threads are dedicated to the debate about whether Beckman and second-year athletic director Mike Thomas should be pushed out of Champaign. One source close to the program called the Beckman hire "an absolute disaster," and another said he was "in way over his head." A Champaign newspaper reporter made his own "disaster" designation on a radio show.
Some words of advice for those quick-trigger observers: Don't get your hopes up.
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Thomas said Beckman "absolutely" needs to be given more than one year to build the program and gave a definitive answer when asked if the hire was a mistake.
"No. I'm very confident in Coach Beckman and his staff," Thomas said. "… I've been in these situations before. There are a lot of successful coaches who went through some tough times early on."
Illinois' version of tough means going 1-5 and being outscored 215-83 in games against FBS opponents this season.
The Illini haven't won a Big Ten game in more than a year. Of 120 FBS teams, Illinois ranks in the bottom 10 percent in total and scoring offense. A defense thought to boast four returning NFL prospects from former coach Ron Zook's 7-6 team last season has dropped from 15th in scoring defense in 2011 to 85th in 2012.
That number is disconcerting because Beckman served as a defensive coach during his 21 years as an assistant. Critics point to statistics at Oklahoma State because when in his last season as defensive coordinator there in 2008 the Cowboys gave up 28.1 points and 405.5 yards per game. Oklahoma State was 9-4 that season, and Beckman was rewarded with his first head coaching job at Toledo.
On top of the Illini's ugly statistics, Beckman created a Big Ten uproar over conspicuously recruiting Penn State players and a national joke over using smokeless tobacco on the sideline at Wisconsin.
"I'm in this to win too," Beckman said. "We take it day by day. Our motto's 'Own the day' now. …"
Thomas wouldn't give a timeline for when Beckman needs to win consistently, but the state of athletic department finances supports the idea that patience could be in short supply.
In a financial fix?
According to its annual report on its website through fiscal year 2011, Illinois' athletic department has operated within a self-sustaining balanced budget for the last 19 years.
The cost of three coaching changes could make that more difficult to maintain, but Thomas said the athletic department expects to operate in the black again this year and hasn't burned through its reserve funds.
But there are doubters who question how long that will last, with one substantial athletic donor calling the department "a financial train wreck" because of potentially increasing expenses and decreasing revenue.
The expenses start with the $7.12 million in buyouts Illinois will pay to Zook, men's basketball coach Bruce Weber and women's basketball coach Jolette Law.
"Would we rather go through a situation where we weren't having to pay those kinds of dollars to buy out coaches' contracts? Sure," Thomas said. "But we are comfortable with where we are fiscally."
Beckman's five-year, $9 million contract is another expense. His annual compensation starts at four times his salary of about $400,000 at Toledo, a jump that either could be viewed as a necessary parallel with his jump to the Big Ten or a gross overestimation of the value of a coach that had a 21-16 career record. Toledo, under Beckman's former offensive coordinator Matt Campbell, was 6-1 heading into play Saturday night.
Thomas defended Beckman's contract, saying it's still below average in the conference.
A look at the salary increases of another former Mid-American Conference coach in the USA Today coach salary database supports Thomas' opinion. Minnesota's Jerry Kill makes three to four times his former salary at Northern Illinois and Michigan's Brady Hoke was making around three times his Ball State salary at San Diego State. He was making $675,000 there when he left for Michigan, where he made $3.3 million last season.
Kill made between $1.2 million and $1.7 million last season. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is believed to make about $1.8 million per year. Ohio State's Urban Meyer leads the Big Ten with a minimum of $4 million per year.
"I think Tim's paid a fair salary," Thomas said. "He's slotted well within the Big Ten Conference and how we benchmark that."
To get rid of Beckman would cost more money.
Beckman's buyout is two times his base pay of $400,000 for each year remaining on his contract. The agreement includes a $275,000 annual deduction from the buyout based on Beckman's "duty to mitigate damages with other income," according to his contract, which gives an example buyout. Should he be fired on Aug. 1, 2014, Beckman would be paid $1,312,500.
"As somebody who contributes to the athletic department, I don't like the fact they spent a fortune buying coaches out and paying unproven coaches big sums of money," said Steve Bowsher, a Prospect Heights businessman and major contributor to the university and athletic department. "It doesn't seem fiscally responsible to me. … Maybe we're in a position we can afford it."
If so, the concern is whether Illinois can hold that position.
The Illini have had trouble filling the 60,670 seats at Memorial Stadium. Average attendance is down to 45,521 this year, on pace for the worst attendance since 2006, an issue Thomas said earlier this year that only winning can fix. The numbers are a concern not only because of lost revenue from ticket sales but also dwindling fan support.
Bowsher represents a cross-section of the disgruntled fan base — high-profile donors whose discontentment begins with Thomas.
From the top
Bowsher and two other donors, whose aggregate contributions are estimated to total more than $1 million, told the Tribune they planned to stop contributing beyond current commitments until a change was made at athletic director.
Loss of financial support would come at a bad time for Illinois as it tries to raise funds for its Assembly Hall renovation project. Thomas said he didn't believe many donors had cut ties and hasn't had conversations with any who have.
"My university has been hijacked by a bunch of outsiders. I am absolutely furious," one of the big donors said. "I am absolutely finished. The checkbook is sealed. I am done.
"I don't know anyone who's excited or enamored with this current AD and the direction he is taking this administration. This isn't about Tim Beckman to me. … I don't fault Tim Beckman for taking the job. It's obviously a terrific opportunity for him."
Bowsher is an Illinois alum who said he has been contributing time and money to the university for more than 20 years. His issues stretch well beyond the athletic department to the university board of trustees and former President Michael Hogan, but his experiences with Thomas have left him questioning his leadership ability.
"I don't think Mike Thomas is capable in any fashion," Bowsher said. "He's extremely weak from a personality standpoint. I don't see anything there that would tell me we would have success with him as athletic director."
Therein could lie the second problem to firing Beckman early: Attracting a suitable replacement.
Thomas' handling of the coaching changes didn't sit well with everyone. Former assistant football coaches had contract disputes with the university leading up to Illinois' bowl game last season. (The contracts were drawn up under former athletic director Ron Guenther.) Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo publicly denounced Thomas' lack of support for Weber during the men's basketball season.
Firing the first-year football coach he hand-picked would be inconceivable because of the damage it would do to Thomas' reputation, one source said. Doing so would give Thomas three head football coaches in three years.
Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said it's "way too early to tell" how the Beckman hire will play out.
"I put it in the category of transition," said DiNardo, a former head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. "There are tough transitions and smooth transitions. From the outside this looks like a tough transition. (Former Michigan coach Rich) Rodriguez had a tough transition and never really recovered. Kevin Wilson at Indiana, his first year was a tough transition and now they're much better and playing harder."
The transition is complicated by the relative Illini success in Zook's last two seasons. Sure, the Illini lost their last six regular-season games in 2011, but they also finished 7-6 and won a bowl game each season. That could affect how the players deal with adversity in this injury-plagued year and the degree to which they commit to Beckman's plan.
"Through the players' eyes, they have seen recent success," DiNardo said. "If you make a change, it's to have more success.
"I see this as a team that doesn't seem to play with great effort."
Tribune contributor and high school football recruiting guru "Edgy" Tim O'Halloran also advocated for more time. He said recruits have recognized the problems at Illinois, but said they could foresee opportunities for early playing time.
"You'd have to be completely blind not to see," O'Halloran said. "Kids I've talked to have mentioned it and said, 'Yeah it's not good.' ... (But) winning cures all ills when it comes to recruiting. (Losing) will have an impact if it's more than a year or so. "You have to give (Beckman) time. It's not his team."
Thomas said he has heard from angry fans but repeatedly stressed the need to build a foundation when defending Beckman's hire.
"The fans are upset," Thomas said. "They're disappointed. They're frustrated. So am I. So is Coach Beckman and his staff and his student-athletes.
"We need to keep persevering, keep working hard, continuing to get better every day. The hope and the goal is to have success with the five football games we have left."
Win or lose, they're not likely to be Beckman's final five games.
Shannon Ryan and Jared Hopkins contributed.
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