Imagine yourself in Mike Thomas' shoes right now. He knows a decision has to be made on Tim Beckman. He knows it's over and knows the next football hire will define his tenure as Athletic Director. Not many AD's get to choose a third football coach after two disasters--well, unless you're Ron Guenther. I'm personally very disappointed in what has transpired over these first six weeks, but the trouble began long ago.
I compare the college football landscape to our current economy and socioeconomic classes. The middle-class is disintegrating and the gaps between the upper class and what remains of the middle class and lower class are growing by the day. Illinois, unfortunately, kind of made its own bed back in the mid- 90's and has continued to use stop-gaps and band aids to cover long-time flaws. They are at the brink of the disintegrating middle class and if things don't change for the better with the next hire, they may need public assistance.
I sense apathy as I look around the stands at Memorial Stadium. I sense apathy as I read sports writer's columns and blogs and as I listen to a specific voice on the Illini Sports Radio Network. Shouldn't we all be expecting more and questioning more decisions?
My family had a bunch of errands to run Saturday and I ended up catching most of the game on the car radio--not too unusual for me. Sometimes, I wonder if the play-by-play announcer even cares about the final outcome of the game. I wonder if he holds back his real thoughts. I don't understand why there never seems to be any raw emotion elicited; it's simply infuriating at times. The game was decidedly over and he joyously yelled out, "Illinois has 10 more first downs than Purdue." Seriously? Does this guy not see the scoreboard? What do other fans who tune in think of this? I grew up listening to broadcasts of Jim Turpin and Loren Tate during basketball games and Jim Grabowski alongside Turpin for the football season. Those guys told you how it was and what they thought.
You can go out in Champaign after losses, talk to a local at a gas station or a waitress at a buffet on Prospect Ave., you name it, and you will get the same reaction after a loss. You'll get a wry smile and laugh like it was expected. I doubt this was commonplace in the 1980's.
What can be done?
Thomas needs to hit a home run on this one. There are no excuses. No dollar threshold should hold him back. Last I checked, Beckman's contract calls for a buyout of two times his annual base pay ($400K annual with two years left). No big deal. Beckman didn't seem comfortable at the podium during the post- game press conference Saturday (nothing new). It was about as awkward as Tiger Woods' first press conference after his wife broke his car window with a 9-iron.
A power running game has to return--especially considering the wind tunnel that is Champaign/Urbana. Think 2007, did Illinois really ever have to pass? I sometimes wonder if the Cubit hire/ Lunt transfer changed Beckman's whole philosophy of what offense he would run as it appeared at Toledo he preferred the spread or some version of what the disastrous 2012 offense ran.
Obviously, the coach has to recruit and it can be done (Zook sold the prospect of Champaign to great athletes from D.C.) Also, the next coach has to get the media on his side early. Beckman was put down and ridiculed from the start and seemed to never recover (some of it, of course, was self-inflicted).
The athletic department should beg and plead to get fan buy-back. They should give away free tickets if they have to. Give free tickets to all students and kids from the local high schools. People like free stuff. If free tickets aren't enough for the students, then promise them free food vouchers if they attend and stay for the entire game. Give them a reason to show up until the program gets back on its feet. If the athletic department really wants to get the new "brand" out there, then give deals on this stuff, give away free shirts to students. Free food and clothes? Those seem like two of the most essential things in college and would save money for the cover charge at Kam's later that night.
This could be unprecedented territory if the ship is not righted correctly. If, as expected, the team drops the final six of 2014, it is highly likely they will not be favored in any of the eight conference games next year. Illinois could be looking at 1-37 in conference play headed into 2016 over three head coaching tenures. This run would rival the 1976-1981 Northwestern program that went 2-50-1 over that period.
Hire the right guy and things could turn around quickly. My personal choice would be Dino Babers. He knows the state and has worked at multiple levels across the entire country so I would assume he has recruited everywhere. Critics may say he had an NFL QB running the show for him last year, but at this point, can Illinois be a critic of anybody or are they too apathetic to even care?