Let me start out this post by stating, I am one of the biggest die-hard Illini fans there is. It is painful to watch games play out like this past Tuesday. Watching the bowl loss was not really all that bad as the season was and is considered a success. The message boards on all the various Illini related websites can be harsh at times, other times it's indifferent.
What bothers me the most is that both Beckman and Groce are in Year three, and really have achieved the same success level. The perception is that Groce is "the man" and the program is in great hands whereas the football program is one 4-8 season in 2015 from a total rebuild from a new coaching staff. Why is this? Frankly, Groce was left in a better situation than Beckman.
Let's compare the two in most critical aspects of a successful winning program:
Recruiting: By far the most important aspect of college athletics. I cannot fault Beckman for what he has done or tried so far in recruiting. He will never reach "Zookian" status in terms of reeling in out- of- state four & five star talent, but he is selling what he can at this point. The football staff appears to be trying their best with in-state recruiting and there seems to be some payoff this year with players such as Dre Brown and Gabe Megginson. At least he knows his limitations and what he can sell.
I absolutely give Groce an "A" for effort in recruiting, but in terms of execution and common sense "C" at best. Chasing Cliff Alexander, Jalen Brunson, Elijah Thomas seemed like going through the motions to me. Chasing these players is all well and good, but given the state of the program the last ten years, trying to land any of these guys is comparable to an overweight freshman with acne trying to get the homecoming queen to go out on a Saturday Night. Yeah the prospect will come visit for a weekend and the parents will like you and your program, but like the freshman above learned, all he got to do was walk the girl's dog and hang out with her parents while the senior (let's just say Bill Self for the irony), took the girl out that night. If you have not been to the Sweet 16 since 2005 and you are an alleged "basketball school" and you want to continue to fight with Kansas, Kentucky, and Duke for players, good luck.
Beckman has had numerous gaffes(tobacco-gate, getting run over by the referees in Evanston in 2012, awkward press conferences such as getting a "giggle", so this has pry been his biggest failing to this point as head coach. Overall he portrays himself as a good family man who seems to enjoy getting involved with the community.
Groce is excellent at every aspect of this. He learned from a good one in Thad Matta (still hard to believe Illinois selected Weber over him in 2003).
This will be probably the toughest one to compare, but after recruiting, the reason you win-lose close games. It's hard to tell how much of a hand Beckman has in the say of the actual play calling of the offense and defense, whereas Groce directly makes all decisions to the X & O portion of the game.
Cubit is calling the plays on offense and Beckman gets final veto. I assume this due to the near brawl on the sideline against Ohio State 2013. It is rumored Beckman did get involved with defensive play calling late in 2013 as Banks was clearly struggling.
The best way to know if you have an X & O's coach is the first five minutes of the second half of a basketball game and the entire 3rd quarter of a football game. I feel with the numerous comebacks the football team made this year (trailed in 5 of the 6 wins in the 2nd half), there are adjustments being made to play a better 2nd half.
Basketball is the exact opposite. The 2nd half of games this year, the rim turns into the size of a raisin while the rim for the opponent turns into a rib roast for a pack of wolves. There seem to be no adjustments made on the defensive side of the ball especially. Going under screens, and letting players shoot wide open 3's is a recipe for disaster. I just found the Michigan game recently appalling, as the staff should know from that beat down on Senior Night last year Michigan lives and dies by the three. Does anybody else realize this?
The small things do add up over time. Apathy is still a big problem with the football team. A bowl game this past year helps but will it help sell tickets to home games next year?
In a prior article I mentioned "owning" Chicago for the basketball team and losing there is unacceptable given the media circus, large alumni base, and most importantly recruiting. Each one of these bizarre losses to teams like Michigan and prior to that, Oregon hurts your product you are selling to these recruits. 4 and most certainly 5 star kids don't want to play for a NIT team or some program that has been on the bubble every year but one season (2009) in the past ten years.
Beckman's first year did not go well and it has been openly documented that many of the upperclassmen did not want to start over and missed Zook and especially Vic Koenning. It seems to have improved yearly and there are good traditions (birthday cakes, lasagna, etc.). It did appear this year the players were having fun out there.
For Groce, it appears the opposite has happened. It seemed his first team loved playing for him and they were more than just a team. Last year, there appeared to be some chemistry, but not as good as the first year. This year, chemistry does appear to be a problem. Just an opinion of mine, but it appears everybody is in "get mine" mode a lot of times. Go back and look at the 2005 team passing the ball around. It was a clinic. This dribble drive offense appears to be a "black hole" for the other four guys on the court. I just get the vibe the game seem like a "job" to the team and they aren't having much fun.
Most would agree Beckman's first two years were massive failures and improvement was lacking in any aspect. This year I did see things and it was encouraging. The 4th quarter comebacks, reeling off two straight at the end of the year to go bowling. His 4th year will be critical as the non-conference schedule is feasible, but the back end of the conference schedule seems more daunting.
Groce teams have improved toward the end of each year, but the hole was dug so deep in past January's, the Thursday play-in game in the Big Ten Tournament becomes a must win to even have a chance to get in.
Advantage: Groce (barely) and the season hasn't played out completely yet.
In summary, gone are the days of blaming Zook or Weber anymore and by this point Beckman and Groce have pretty much made their own bed. Year three leading into four, is a good enough barometer to lead fans to believe how things are going to be. The tenures of both have gone by very fast and I want both of them to succeed, but a 4-8 2015 season could be endgame for Beckman and annual NIT appearances by Groce could have Mike Thomas on speed dial for Jerrance Howard faster than he expected.