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Tim Beckman's abrupt firing indicates a power shift towards student-athletes

It was difficult to find evidence that the claims of mistreatment levied against Beckman by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanović were severe enough to warrant firing. And yet, here we are.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

It's not surprising that a coach who went 12-25 in three years atop a Big Ten football program was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach who, during the first year of his tenure, tried to take advantage of Penn State's sexual abuse scandal by poaching their players was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach who struggled to speak intelligently, or sometimes form coherent words at all, in front of the media was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach who somehow turned the most promising season in his tenure, both on the field and especially in recruiting, into a negative by scolding the media for not being more positive about his football team was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach whose football team finished 94th, 105th, and 109th nationally in points per game allowed, despite being labeled a primarily defensive coach, was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach who was accused by a former player of injury mistreatment and holding scholarships over players' heads was fired.

It's not surprising that a coach who somehow made what was already a mockery of a football program even more embarrassing to root for was fired.

And yet, despite all of the miscues and all of the foibles and all of the failures, it's difficult for me to believe that Tim Beckman was fired as the head coach of Illinois Fighting Illini football Friday afternoon in Champaign. This day was inevitable, but Tim Beckman's ship sank because of what had previously seemed like the only thing he ever did right.

At practice in Rantoul for the last two weeks, Beckman and the entire coaching staff were relaxed and confident in their treatment of players. Through word of mouth, and word of mouth alone, it was frankly quite difficult to find evidence that the claims of mistreatment levied against Beckman by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanović were severe enough to warrant firing.

A few current and former players spoke out against Beckman, yes, but the amount of player support in his favor outweighed them considerably. To say otherwise would be to ignore quite a bit of evidence.

But a majority ruling certainly doesn't clear Beckman of wrongdoing, and it shouldn't have done so in my mind. I'm sure some fans feel the same way, after making fun of Cvijanović's claims when so many spoke out opposing him.

The injury-related mistreatment of even one player is a fireable offense, as Brady Hoke found out after sending QB Shane Morris repeatedly onto the field in spite of an obvious concussion. Hoke had a multitude of problems, but none mattered more than endangering a student-athlete. The same is true of Beckman.

From the official press release:

During a preliminary briefing from the external reviewers, [Athletic Director Mike] Thomas said he learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries. He also said in some instances student-athletes were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren't on the team.

"Both of those findings are unsettling violations of University policy and practice and do not reflect the culture that we wish to create in athletic programs for our young people," Thomas said. "I expect my coaches to protect players and foster their success on and off the field."

But standing in the locker room with the Illini players, you couldn't reliably throw a rock and hit a player who wouldn't opine about the "family atmosphere" that Beckman created at Illinois. It was something he reinforced again and again. It was the only thing left that made me believe Tim Beckman might have the smallest chance of success at Illinois, because sometimes intangibles actually make a difference and who knows what could happen.

From Shannon Ryan's article on Beckman for the Tribune, here's Ted Karras:

"I can only speak to my experiences, and it's the exact opposite of everything that's been alleged," senior offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. "Nothing that I've experienced at the university would even hint at some of the things that have been alleged."

Which is why this firing is so confusing. Thomas cited mistreatment of players' injuries, but many players rave about Beckman's warm nature. If the report comes out and Beckman did something as bad as it sounds, then of course it's unacceptable. But... do we know for sure that Thomas wasn't looking for a reason to fire Beckman and get out of the $3+ million remaining on his deal? David Haugh (I know, I know. It hurts me more than it hurts you. Just stay with me here.) addressed the possibility in his column regarding the firing:

Without condoning such behavior, one Division I-A athletic director called the findings Thomas held against Beckman "fairly typical" in major-college programs and would be considered a firing offense only for an athletic director looking for a reason to fire his coach. Clearly, scapegoat-hunting Thomas was.

Can we trust this athletic department when they say that what Beckman did was enough to warrant immediate dismissal? I'm never one for conspiracy theories, but would we really put it past the leadership currently in place at Illinois? I didn't think Beckman was a good coach. He was bad.

But I felt he earned the fourth year of his tenure when the Illini scraped their way to a bowl game in 2014. And if we trust Haugh's source even slightly, then it seems like Beckman did what many other Division-I coaches would have done in a similar situation.

So perhaps this firing represents one of the steps in the culture change happening across college football, and more broadly, college athletics. Players have a voice now. No longer can they be silenced with threats of pulling a scholarship. No longer can they be pushed too hard, because at any moment a coach's entire reputation could go up in flames because of it.

Coaches still hold an unequal amount of power over student-athletes (*briefly glances at transfer eligibility rules*), but the once-vast gap is shrinking by the day. One twitter rant from a former player can launch an investigation into the bowels of a program and though we don't know what it found, it was enough.

Heads are spinning in Champaign right now, and until the full investigative report is released, they won't stop. If there's one thing we can say about Beckman, it's that he leaves Illini fans feeling the same way he operated during the majority of his tenure: perplexed and overwhelmed.