My Sept. 1 Wisch List column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee) and The Times (Ottawa) …
The WISCH LIST
The place hasn’t claimed as many managerial careers as that famed burial ground at Clark and Addison in Chicago, but down at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, things rarely end well for Fighting Illini football coaches.
Perhaps not coincidentally, things don’t tend to start out so hot, either.
In its history, Illinois has had a dozen head football coaches, and their combined record is a meager 40-61-4 during their inaugural seasons. Since 1960, the coaches’ record is even worse at 30-55-3. But today, with the Illini kicking off the 2012 season vs. Western Michigan, first-year coach Tim Beckman isn’t only looking to buck the Broncos. He’s looking to buck that coaching trend, as well.
He has a solid shot.
Better than most of his predecessors, at least.
Since ’60, Beckman is the 10th football coach to grab the Illini reins and of those nine men, eight eventually left town after they were fired for either losing too much or breaking too many rules. The lone coach to leave on his own was John Mackovic, who galloped off to the University of Texas at the end of the 1991 season only to have the Longhorns give him the hook six years later.
During the 1988 season, his first in Champaign, Mackovic posted a respectable 6-5-1 mark that was matched four years later by his successor, Lou Tepper. In last 52 years, those records stand as the best of all Illini rookie coaches – in most cases, by a wide margin.
When Ron Zook took over in 2005, he went 2-9. Eight years earlier, Ron Turner opened his Illini career with an 0-11 campaign.
Before Mackovic, Mike White went just 3-7-1 in is debut season of 1980. Gary Moeller, meanwhile, logged a 3-8 record in ’77, Bob Blackman was 5-6 in ’71 and Jim Valek went 4-6 in ’67. Prior to that, in 1960, Pete Elliott finished just above .500 at 5-4.
The first two coaches in Illini history – eventual legends Bob Zuppke and Ray Eliot – went 4-2-1 and 6-4 in their respective inaugural seasons of 1913 and 1942. And that’s been as good as it gets for first-year coaches in Champaign.
Beckman, however, could perhaps best them all. Helping his cause is a favorable seven-game home schedule that brings Penn State, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota to town. Assisting even more is Beckman inheriting the best talent of any Illini coach since at least Tepper.
Offensively, Illinois returns a three-year starter in quarterback Nathan Scheelaase, who has led the team win two straight bowl games. It’s the defensive that should shine more, however, with standout junior linebacker Jonathan Brown and eight senior starters showing the way.
Perhaps most promising of all, though, is that in Beckman Illinois appears to finally have a true head coach running the show rather than a one-dimensional recruiter (Zook), offensive coordinator (Turner) or defensive coordinator (Tepper).
This week in the Champaign News-Gazette, longtime Illini observer Loren Tate observed that Illinois “has a coach in complete charge. This wasn’t the case the last two years. While Ron Zook had the final say, it was a team directed in large part by two independent coordinators, Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning.”
That arrangement was unstable, with Beckman now saying, “I like to be involved in everything. I’ll click my headset back and forth between offense and defense. This is all about working together.”
If he indeed is the Illini’s first well-rounded coach since Mackovic, then things really could work in the long run. Flashing some bravado, Beckman added, “I want to be a champion. That’s why I coach football.”
Cheers to that. But, right now, I’ll settle for a winning debut.