Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

     Normally in my weekly blog entry I go around the campus with the different Illini sports that happen to be going on at that particular time.

     This is not one of those times.

     This entry is a special edition, based solely on the events surrounding Friday afternoon when everything in the football program took an unexpected turn with the sudden dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman.

     I had gone out for a walk at lunchtime like I normally do, and when I came back in, I checked my email like always, but on this day, something grabbed my attention in my inbox.  At first I thought it was a joke that someone was playing, but as soon as I saw who it was from and started reading the body of the email, I quickly realized that it was no joke and that this was really happening.

     In the email press release, it stated that Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas had dismissed Beckman for what he called findings within the program that essentially led to Thomas making this decision.  It was no secret that the athletic department had been under scrutiny for the past few months when it was alleged that coaches in the football, women's basketball and women's soccer programs had mistreated players either mentally, or  not disclosed injuries or didn't treat players in a manner that was beneficial to their rehabilitation.

     The first such claim came from former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who claimed that Beckman forced him back from an injury earlier than expected, and that surgery that he received was not consistent with what he needed.  At first, when these claims surfaced, people in the media thought it was just a case of a former player waging a battle against Beckman, and using social media as his platform.  But, these recent findings gives the situation a bit more credence, and who knows where this will lead.

     Beckman amassed a 12-25 record at Illinois in his three seasons at Illinois, but went just 4-20 in the Big Ten with one bowl appearance, the 2014 Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  However, Thomas insisted on Friday that the removal of the coach had nothing to do with on-the-field activity, but instead based on the findings of the preliminary report.  Thomas would not go into any further detail about it, either.

     Thomas named offensive coordinator Bill Cubit interim head coach for the 2015 season, with a base salary of $515,000 and an increase of $100,000 each month until the end of the football season.  Cubit has been a head coach before at Western Michigan, where he compiled a 51-47 record.  Ironically, it was Cubit who Beckman defeated in his first game coached at Illinois, a 24-7 win on September 1, 2012.

     Cubit is much more media friendly, and seems to know what he is doing, judging from the way the offense has looked over the past couple of seasons.  But a rash of injuries to key players such as Mikey Dudek, Dre Brown, Justin Hardee and Reggie Corbin over the past few months has severely depleted the depth that Illinois expected to have as this season began.

     The timing of Thomas' move was especially bad, given that the Illini begin play this coming Friday night against Kent State (8:00 pm, BTN), but Thomas stated that it was better to make the move now before the full report with the findings were publicly released.

     With all of the scrutiny that the University has been experiencing lately, with the chancellor first resigning, then being basically dismissed, followed by the provost stepping down from his position as well, things do not appear to be on solid ground.

     Many have suggested that Thomas be the next to be shown the door, but he has claimed that it will be his duty to hire the next football coach after the current season comes to a close.  When Thomas as hired, he came in right away and fired Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law within a span of four months, and this hire would be his second, which many in Illini Nation do not want to see happen.

     So, how did we get in this mess in the first place?  Beckman has never been what you call "media savvy", and his constant missteps in front of the microphone have led to ridicule nationwide.  His callout of media back in February about being more positive towards the program rubbed some the wrong way, but our job in the media is to report the facts as they are, not be a cheerleader for the coach or a staff.

     So, enough about Beckman, he is no longer the coach, and it is time for Coach Cubit to lead this program, at least for the forseeable future.  This year can go one of two ways:  either the Illini rally around their new coach and return to a bowl game, or they will continue down the current path, which will ultimately lead to a new staff and a fresh start once again.

     Whatever outcome plays out, one thing is clear, it will be an interesting journey.

Monday, August 24, 2015

     Finally, some good news to report concerning Illinois sports,

     In a summer that has seen much turmoil and disappointment in Illinois athletics, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see something positive play out.

     On Monday afternoon, something that was long overdue finally came to fruition, the basketball court at State Farm Center being named in honor of Lou Henson.  Henson, who coached the Illini from 1975 until 1996, remains a legend in Champaign, and now he has the honor of the court to go along with it.

     Henson, who has been battling health problems the past few months, was in attendance at the event, which was held inside the 77 Club at Memorial Stadium.  With State Farm Center renovations still ongoing and not ready yet, the most logical venue was across the street in a facility named for another Illini great, Red Grange.  Henson wore a mask and rubber gloves upon entering the room, but once he was announced, he took them off and addressed the crowd in attendance,

     This was not a normal press conference, but instead a celebration to honor Henson and his wife Mary, who split time between Champaign and Las Cruces, Nevada, where coincidentally, Henson also has a court named in his honor.  Due to his health concerns, he cut the celebration short and was due to go to a treatment shortly after his visit with family and friends.  There will be an official ceremony the night that State Farm Center reopens for 2015-16, when Notre Dame will pay a visit to Champaign in the Big 10/ACC Challenge,  The court, which will also be used in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center for the first five games while State Farm Center finishes its makeover, will be moved and unveiled on December 2nd, the evening of the Notre Dame game.

     A fitting honor for a great man, and it is wonderful to finally see it happening, and even better that he gets to see it happen in person.

     Camp Rantoul wrapped up for the Fighting Illini football team, and the injury bug keeps on biting Tim Beckman's team.  If the recent injuries of the past few weeks were not enough to give Beckman grey hairs, the loss of freshman running back Reggie Corbin will certainly cause the silver to fly.  Corbin was probably a good choice to redshirt anyway this season, but another running back down means that the depth at the position is even thinner than before.  So much that Beckman has been employing cornerback V'Angelo Bentley in the backfield on certain formations.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn is back to full contact, and has looked fairly confident in early workouts.  The offensive line was a major question mark the past couple of seasons, but some stability and added depth has given the position a much needed boost.

    With senior Ted Karras returning from an injury to anchor the line, the Illini will look to players such as Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro and Chris Boles to step up their game and provide protection for quarterback Wes Lunt.  A true freshman, Gabe Megginson, could see action this season, but the coaching staff would prefer to redshirt him and get him even stronger for next season.

     The receiving corps have looked good as well thus far, particularly two true freshmen, Sam Mays and Desmond Cain.  Mays, who could pass for an identical twin of Geronimo Allison from the outside, can move very well, and Cain, who is a bit smaller, could provide the extra punch that the Illini need to do some damage to opposing defenses.

     Speaking of Lunt, he will need to stay upright this season if the Illini have any chance of repeating their bowl appearance of a year ago.  Lunt, who has had a history of injuries dating back to his days at Rochester High School, has the arm strength to play at the next level, and with several weapons at his disposal, could have a breakout season if he can remain in action all season long.  Plus, if Lunt does happen to go down with an injury, the backup situation is not the best, with Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. waiting in the wings.  Both Crouch and George have never taken a snap in a college game, so the experience factor is not strong.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has begun their season, and are off to a good start on the young campaign.  The Illini defeated Oakland 4-1 this past Friday night, behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  Flaws also assisted on another score, and is showing why she is a force to be reckoned with this season.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini traveled to Normal to face Illinois State and came away with a 1-0 victory on a goal by Reagan Robishaw.  Flaws also assisted on that goal, giving Janet Rayfield's team an early 2-0 start to the season.  The Illini will be back in action this coming weekend, when they welcome TCU to the Illini soccer complex on Friday evening and then will take on St. Louis Sunday evening.  Both games are slated for a 7:00 pm CT start.

     Next week, I will look at the defense and special teams as the season opener draws closer.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

     So, how was your summer?

     I can venture a guess that it was somewhat better than what the University of Illinois experienced over the past few months, most notably the athletic program.

     It has been a tumultuous summer for Illinois and several of its programs, and the hits just, as they say, keep on comin'.

     Let's rewind back to early June where the Fighting Illini baseball team was making history by advancing to the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament and a series win over defending champion Vanderbilt would have given the Illini their first ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

     But instead of taking pride in that accomplishment, which they did, the word began to break about mistreatment of injuries within the Illinois football program, stemming from former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic.  In Cvijanovic's claims, he stated that the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury, and actually went in and did something that they were not instructed to do, or so he claims.  When news of this broke, suddenly several former teammates of Cvijanovic's came forward to issue similar claims.

     This is not the news that Illinois football coach Tim Beckman needed for his program, which begins its fourth season with Beckman in command.  Illinois is already dealing with several injuries to key players as it is, especially sophomore sensation Mikey Dudek, who sustained an ACL injury during spring workouts.  Dudek, who garnered all-Big Ten freshmen honors last season, set the freshman record at Illinois for receiving yards, and was expected to be a key component for Beckman and the Illini as they looked to capitalizing on last year's bowl appearance in Dallas.

     Beckman has seen the Illini win total increase from 2 to 4 to 6 in his 3 years in Champaign, but to make that jump on the scale to the next level, which is 8, will take some major undertaking, and also a whole lot of luck.  With the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Champaign this season, the Illini need to get out to a quick start in the non-conference portion of the schedule before the Big Ten season starts in earnest with the Cornhuskers visit.

     As if the football allegations were not enough, about a week or so later, news broke regarding alleged racial bias and verbal abuse within the Fighting Illini women's basketball program.  These claims led to assistant coach Mike Divilbiss being terminated, apparently a mutual agreement between he and the university, and raised even more questions into the program and their head coach Matt Bollant.

      Bollant, who had a very successful run at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Illinois 3 years ago, has not seen the success that he envisioned in coming to Champaign, and apparently, it was Divilbiss that may have been the wedge into this problem.  The claims led to several current and former players getting together and filing a lawsuit, which this past week was found to not be credible by the attorney handling the case.  The players still remaining on the team leave for an overseas trip this week and will look for some time away to regroup as a team and get back to basics.

     The news continued to get worse for the Illinois sports landscape a couple weeks ago when it was announced that senior-to-be Tracy Abrams sustained an achilles injury in a non-contact drill in practice preparing for their overseas trip and will miss yet another season for the Illini.  Head coach John Groce seems beside himself over several injuries to key players, and Groce, who will enter his fourth season as coach of Illinois, begins a pivotal season that could either make or break his future at Illinois.

     It has been no secret that Groce has had some difficulty landing a point guard for the 2015-16 season, and the loss of Abrams magnifies that void tenfold.  Also dealing with injuries are freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was one of Groce's marquee recruiting gets since he has been at Illinois, and Darius Paul, who has had issues of his own since he has been an Illini.  However, a bit of good news on that front happened Saturday, when Groce received word that fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis announced that he will play at Illinois this upcoming season.  Lewis, who last played at LaSalle, is not a flashy player, but he is a another body, and a point guard that Groce sorely needs right now.  

     As if all of this wasn't enough for a summer, earlier this week came perhaps the most shocking announcement of them all.  University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she is resigning from her position, effective Wednesday, August 12th.  This came as a complete shock to many at the university, and with the recent scandals within the athletic department and also around campus with various hiring practices, Wise seems to have had enough.  More information is still coming out regarding this latest debacle, and this may not bode well for athletic director Mike Thomas, who reports to the Chancellor.

     New university president Timothy Killeen, who accepted Wise's resignation, may have had some factor into the decision, and who knows where this will lead in the next couple of months.  Killeen has said that he could have an interim chancellor named within the week, and if that person doesn't have strong athletic ties or a keen interest in sports, things could get very interesting around campus in the next few months, especially with the major revenue sports.  Stay tuned.

     Back to football for a minute if I may.  The Fighting Illini have begun fall training camp with the first three days closed to the public in Champaign.  The Illini will move to Rantoul for the next two weeks of training camp on the former Chanute Air Force Base, where all of the practices will be open to the public.  So, if you are wanting to check out Tim Beckman and the Illini, Camp Rantoul will be the place to be starting Sunday, August 9th.  A full schedule of practices can be found at and clicking on the football link.  Over the next couple of weeks, I will be previewing the Illinois season by groups, culminating with an expanded look at the season leading up to the home opener, which is set for 8:00 pm CT on Friday, September 4th against Kent State.

     Yes folks, Fighting Illini football is back, and if anyone needs some good news right now, it is coach Beckman and the Illini.