CHAMPAIGN — As we moved into a new Illini football season with a new head coach, a new staff of assistants and a new sense of hope, most fans were hoping for a quick liftoff.
But halfway through Season No. 1, there’s a feeling that Air Beckman is still sitting on the runway or worse — being towed back to the hangar for repairs.
The latest delay that has grounded any sense of progress is “Skoalgate,” the controversy that arose when head coach Tim Beckman was caught on camera pinching smokeless tobacco from a can of Skoal while on the sideline during last Saturday’s game at Wisconsin.
It was a double-dumb move, and Beckman knows that now.
First of all, it’s an NCAA violation. Not the kind that will land a program on probation, but AD Mike Thomas had to work with the school’s compliance office and craft a letter of apology to the Big Ten Conference, which turned the matter over to the NCAA, where a letter of admonishment will be placed in Beckman’s file.
Beckman will be educated further on why the NCAA prohibits tobacco products at its events and if it’s a one-time lapse of judgment, the matter will end. If he’s a habitual snuff dipper who can’t shake the habit, he’ll do hard time in Jim Tressel’s basement.
I make a joke of it knowing full well it’s not funny to those who correctly point out that Beckman was setting a very poor example to young people who may have been watching. And as the CEO of the Illini football program — a guy who is paid $1.6 million this year to run the shop in an exemplary way — this makes him look like a rube.
It’s embarrassing to the school and to Mike Thomas.
The two actions Beckman has orchestrated that have brought Illinois national attention are the eight assistant coaches who were dispatched to Penn State in search of potential transfers and the use of chewing tobacco during a nationally televised game.
You hoped for more positive press.
But this isn’t about beating up on Beckman, who so far has had an uncanny knack of inviting that on his own.
No, this is about the move to a new head football coach, a transition that has been more difficult than expected but which is far from rare.
It’s become apparent that the veterans on this football team — especially those on the defensive side of the ball — have resisted the buy-in that any new coaching staff needs to push forward.
They miss their former defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning. They loved the guy. As the cliché goes, they’d have run through a brick wall for him. They really would have.
The new defensive coordinator, Tim Banks, may prove to be very capable. But if he asked those players to run through a brick wall right now, they’d gladly run around it.
The message I got from the players-only meeting the night before the Wisconsin game is that they felt more comfortable talking about team shortcomings away from the coaches — in part because they have not yet reconciled complete trust for these coaches.
That’s the part that’s not new at Illinois.
Remember when Bill Self arrived at Illinois in 2000 to take over the basketball program?
Even though Self’s first team got off to a decent start, there was resistance within the squad to accept Self’s ways. Most of the players liked playing for Lon Kruger and they questioned the new coaching style.
Self finally had a heart-to-heart with his players in the team locker room, pleading with them. “Trust me. What we do works. What we do wins.” And finally, they relented and bought in.
That team finished 27-8, shared the Big Ten championship and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Remember when Bruce Weber arrived in 2003 to take over the same basketball program?
Resistance was enormous, which was a tribute to the affection and trust they had built for Self.
Dee Brown thought about transferring. A 19-point loss to Providence was considered a sign of the apocalypse. Consecutive Big Ten losses to Purdue and Northwestern created a sense of emergency.
Weber threw Deron Williams out of practice. He raised six kinds of hell trying to prove there was a new sheriff in town.
Finally, Weber’s mock funeral, in which he work a black suit and tossed a rhetorical shovel of dirt on Self’s legacy, made national news. But after a loss at Wisconsin in January, the team won 14 of its final 16, won the Big Ten title and reached the Sweet 16.
The next year the team won its first 36 games in a row and by then, everyone was buying what Weber was selling.
But in the case of Self and Weber, they ultimately turned the tide by winning games. Nothing is more convincing than victory. And Beckman’s job will be more difficult because he does not have that working for him in Season No. 1.
When a team is losing — and losing big — an embarrassment like “Skoalgate” stings all the more. It invites ridicule.
If Beckman and his team were 5-1, Illini fans everywhere would be dipping into the tin as a gesture of unity.
Beckman is getting beat up pretty good so far and he’s been a hard target to resist. I’ve done my share.
That said, I want to be fair. I want to be hopeful.
It may sound unbiased, but I’d like nothing more than to know what it’s like to cover a college football team that walks with the confident stride of a consistent winner.
I’m not talking about Alabama, which currently sits atop the throne of college football.
I’m thinking it’s reasonable to expect a program with more modest success, a team that wins more than it loses, a team that provides honest entertainment for fans who pay good money and get lousy parking to come to Memorial Stadium, a team that each season has an expectation of landing in one of the countless bowl games that are handed out like holiday candy canes to any team that finishes .500.
And I know AD Mike Thomas wants the exact same thing. Football success is the key to funding his athletic department.
Thomas made two shrewd head football coaching hires at the University of Cincinnati. He grabbed Brian Kelly, who now leads the unbeaten Notre Dame team. And he followed that up by hiring Butch Jones, who was 4-8 in his first season but has gone 14-3 since, including 4-0 this season.
There’s a time when patience will have run its course and we can discuss what Thomas ought to do next.
But six games into Beckman’s first season is not that time.
Let’s be fair, and that is likely to require patience into next season.
Everyone wants to see signs that Beckman knows how to get this program off the ground. So far, we’re still waiting.
He would be helped, however, if he just started helping himself.