CHAMPAIGN — I’ve known a few surly, unlikable coaches who made everyone want to stand at a safe distance.
They were rude and uncaring. Their personalities were abrasive and arrogant.
But Illini head football coach Tim Beckman is not one of those coaches.
While directing Illinois to a 2-6 start in his first season as coach, Beckman has had his issues. We’ll get to them in a minute.
But in his interaction with the public and media, he’s a decent enough guy who smiles and generally says harmless, polite things.
That said, the public outcry at Beckman’s coaching start has been spiked with a venom that is normally reserved people who do mean things to children, puppies or both.
I’m not defending the guy because his football team has been dreadful and it’s quite possible he won’t be able to coach his way out of this mess that seems to have trapped him. But some of the hostility and vitriol strikes me as over the top.
In truth, though, I think I understand it.
It’s not that 2-6 record.
Heck, his predecessor, Ron Zook, started out 4-20 and things looked plenty grim in his early going.
Before that, Ron Turner lost his first 12 games and there was grumbling about him, too.
So Illini football fans are not unaccustomed to rocky coaching starts.
But with Beckman, it’s a combination of factors that have conspired to make Illini football fans feel victimized by the single-worst word in the sports vocabulary: Hopelessness.
Beckman took over a team that won consecutive bowl games. There appeared to be enough talent to fight it out near the .500 mark again, especially with key members of a very good defense still in place.
But that defense splintered at Arizona State on Sept. 8 and has never been the same. The offense has never found an identity and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the worst special teams in America continue to be an embarrassment.
Simply put, there’s not a single thing an Illini football fan can point to and say, “We do that really well.”
Beckman arrived from the Mid-American Conference (not a big plus with Illini fans) with a kind of Opie Taylor innocence. He quickly talked about having position groups to his home on Thursday nights for lasagna dinners and he began rewarding and punishing his players with varying levels of cuisine — steaks and cakes for winners, beans and weenies for losers.
There are all kinds of military logos slapped on the walls of the team meeting room, and slogans and gimmicks rule the day.
Early on, a fellow scribe nicknamed him, “High School Harry,” because some of these motivational methods seemed more suited for children than young men.
We’ve heard stories about bickering assistant coaches and on Monday, defensive tackle Akeem Spence described team morale as, “OK. It’s not great. Guys are not happy with the way things are going, but they are still willing to come in and work and study film.”
That stuff doesn’t bother me. There are screaming matches within some of the best coaching staffs in America. The high-tension turmoil among some of Mike White’s Illini assistants is legendary.
And when players have lost 12 of the last 15 games, I wouldn’t expect morale to be sky high. Players are frustrated, too.
The sideline tobacco incident only served to further embarrass the university and it did nothing to help Beckman’s image as a strong leader.
Instead, it made him look like an extra on Duck Dynasty.
The hostility has spilled beyond Beckman. Angry fans want AD Mike Thomas to be held accountable, too. And there are plenty of irate voices asking for both of their jobs.
Thomas, speaking on a Champaign radio show Saturday, said only 10 percent of Illini fans were expressing this level of negative reaction.
It’s more than that, Mike. It’s worse than that.
I expect Beckman to be back for a second season as he tries to build the team through recruiting. But I also expect there to be changes on that coaching staff and I won’t be surprised it includes at least one coordinator. It’s just not working.
In the meantime, he’d do well to win one or two of these remaining football games. Or at least show a competitiveness that’s been missing.
Illini fans have put up with losing before, but the accumulative effect has become old. Fans are fed up and believed Thomas would make the hire to end this sad cycle.
And now those fans are at the worst place of all, the feeling that the losing will never end.
If there are better times ahead, fans can’t see them. They can’t feel them. And a number of those fans are tired of waiting for them.
Tim Beckman’s most recent motto is “Own the Day.”
I suggest he work urgently on this one: “End the Hopelessness.”
That’s what has created a vicious hostility that has the entire program on edge.