Tupper: New Illini football coaches eager to turn program around

2012-02-01T01:00:00Z Tupper: New Illini football coaches eager to turn program aroundBy MARK TUPPER H&R Executive Sports Editor Herald-Review.com

CHAMPAIGN - When Mike Thomas was hired as the University of Illinois' athletics director, he immediately raised the bar by saying all teams were expected to compete for Big Ten Conference championships and be a factor on the national scene.

Volleyball took that challenge seriously and landed in the national championship match.

Soccer had an excellent season. Wrestling is nationally ranked.

And men's gymnastics opened the season rated No. 1 in America.

But when it comes to football, climbing the national ladder has seemed a bit like scaling Mt. Everest in slippers. It's been an unassailable challenge. With a few exceptions, Illinois has generally lingered somewhere between the middle of the pack and the conference cellar.

But Thomas' message has been embraced by new head football coach Tim Beckman and on Tuesday, when he introduced his full coaching staff for the first time, it's clear the message has reached them, too.

New co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales, who comes to Illinois from LSU, said he and new offensive line coach Luke Butkus were talking and they shared their excitement of what they believe is coming.

Butkus' enthusiasm is understandable. He played at Illinois and his uncle, Dick Butkus, is athletic royalty on this campus. But Gonzales speaks with convincing force.

"The Big Ten is a great conference," said Gonzales, who will do the play-calling even though Chris Beatty shares the offensive coordinator duties. "This school deserves championships. Me and coach Butkus were talking about this last night.

"Everyone on this staff has been a member of a championship team. Coach Beckman has hired guys who are like him. We have the same values."

Tim Banks will be Illinois' new defensive coordinator and he has a history with both Beckman and Illinois' new AD, having been on the University of Cincinnati staff for two years while Thomas was still running the athletics department there.

"I had a pretty good job where I just left," said Banks, who was defensive coordinator for the Bearcats, too. "We had a bunch of guys coming back. We'd just won a championship. I didn't have to leave.

"But understanding (Beckman's) vision and Mike Thomas' vision, it became a no-brainer.

"What you'll see is an attacking defense with guys flying around, playing with great passion and great juice. The scheme is irrelevant. It's about the fundamentals and the passion."

Special teams coordinator Tim Salem, who will also coach the running backs, may have the biggest job of all. Illinois was among the very worst in the country at special teams and turning the Illini into a team that acts like it knows how to return a punt would be a huge step in the right direction.

Special teams can win football games. At Illinois, it has mostly lost them.

Salem, who played at Minnesota and has coached at Purdue and Ohio State, has had a chance to watch Illinois football from a Big Ten perspective. And he didn't flinch at this opportunity when Beckman called.

"All of those years I knew what Illinois had and what Illinois could do and should do," Salem said. "When he (Beckman) called me, I was all-in. No hesitation. He called at 6:30 at night, I cleaned out my office (at Central Florida) and was on a flight the next morning.

"My brother (Brad) is the running backs coach at Michigan State and I came back to kick his butt."

At this point, the enthusiasm Beckman showed the day he was hired in December and the booming enthusiasm that is echoed in the voices of his staff is no more than an unfulfilled promise.

But it's a start.

Tuesday night, Beatty was planning to have dinner with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

They've already watched a bowl game together and shared thoughts about the offense. Spring practice will begin in a matter of weeks.

After getting the feeling that the previous regime was stuck in the mud in the Big Ten, it's encouraging to hear people talk about competing for championships and changing the culture and - hold your breath, Illini fans - returning a punt with conviction.


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