CHICAGO – Big Ten football media day is designed to let people get a snapshot of all 14 league football programs going into the start of another college season.
It lets us become reacquainted with head coaches, spend time with some of the league’s high-profile players and compare one program to the next.
With hundreds of media crammed into a giant ballroom, it’s also a chance to find out what other writers, broadcasters, bloggers and observers are thinking.
What I learned about their view of the University of Illinois football program was not a surprise: The media generally views Illinois and coach Tim Beckman as a joke.
I lost count of the times eyes rolled and heads shook when Tim Beckman was bombarded with questions about allegations that he mistreated players with a coaching style described as too brusque.
More than that, there’s a general feeling that the entire athletic department has lost its compass given the football chaos, a $10 million lawsuit brought by seven former Illini women’s basketball players and complaints from a women’s soccer player about the mistreatment of her concussion.
While the media day event played out on Thursday and Friday in Chicago, two Chicago Tribune stories were published that added to the backstory.
One was a story in which 50 former and current football players were interviewed and it paints Beckman as a coach some players feel can be verbally harsh and sometimes physically confrontational on the practice field while other players view him as caring, concerned and willing to listen to player issues.
Then came a story about Mike Divilbiss, the former associate head coach in women’s basketball who departed after the school learned more details about complaints in that program.
That story tracked players who had played for Divilbiss when he was head coach at Idaho and many of them talked about an emotional coach whose in-your-face tactics contributed to a number of transfers.
I saw nothing in the report about Beckman that would be a fireable offense, although the external investigation currently being conducted by a Chicago law firm may uncover other facts.
In the women’s basketball story, it appears the administration could have done a much more thorough job investigating Divilbiss and his reputation at past stops.
Even if Beckman survives the current investigation, his tenure is unstable.
First of all, the women’s basketball investigation becomes relevant to Beckman should it impact the status of AD Mike Thomas, who is named in the $10 million lawsuit.
It wouldn’t be the first time one of these matters created collateral damage and if something happens to Thomas, Beckman is done.
Simply put, Beckman won’t be another Big Ten AD’s cup of tea.
But even if Thomas avoids trouble, the bigger question he’ll have to honestly reconcile is whether Beckman is really the man the University of Illinois wants as the CEO of its football corporation.
The feeling is that last season’s 6-6 record, while trending upward, may be the ceiling under Beckman’s watch. I’d say a 5-7 finish this season would force a change.
Thomas could have fired Beckman after a 30-14 home loss to Iowa last Nov. 15. Instead, he decided to let the season play out and when Illinois upended Penn State and Northwestern in the final two games, the 6-6 record meant Illinois was bowl-bound and Thomas was trapped into keeping his coach.
It feels like a temporary reprieve. The offensive line is woefully thin and the season could skid sideways in a hurry should injury-prone quarterback Wes Lunt go down early without an experienced QB behind him.
The other truth is that the university has learned it must micromanage Beckman’s exposure to the media, shielding him from inquisitors who might force him to think on his feet.
The ability to be a convincing voice and a believable face of the program is part of the reason schools are willing to pay $2 million or more a year to fill these high-profile jobs.
At this week’s Big Ten media day it was revealing to see the adept way coaches like Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Penn State’s James Franklin and Nebraska’s Mike Riley handled themselves in front of the media.
Never mind the winning, Beckman will never be the guy who dazzles and entertains with his wit and wisdom or who can be trusted to put the bat on fastball questions that beg him to confront hot topics.
Quirky is a style that works when it’s an off-shoot of championship football, but when it accompanies a 12-25 record over three seasons, it just feels cartoonish.
As I’ve said before, I find Tim Beckman to be a nice, likable man. But combine the losing, the puzzling moments of ineptitude as the pitchman for the product, a coaching style that has brought about a costly investigation, and I see a guy who’s in over his head, has been from the start and would be better suited on a smaller stage.
Count me among those who are ready to move to the next chapter.