From the Saturday, Sept. 5, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …
By Dave Wischnowsky
The WISCH LIST
The Illini football season was supposed to have kicked off last night.
But, really, the action started last week when Illinois’ embattled athletic director Mike Thomas booted embattled head coach Tim Beckman just seven days before his team was scheduled to battle Kent State.
The stunning firing was the result of a preliminary external review alleging Beckman influenced medical decisions and pressured players to play hurt, but there had long been ample reason to fire him for his on-field failures.
And that’s what should have happened last October when Illinois lost to Purdue, dropping Beckman’s Big Ten record to 1-17. Had Thomas simply replaced Beckman then and named offensive coordinator Bill Cubit interim coach – a move that I strongly encouraged 11 months ago – the messy saga that’s unfolded since could have easily been avoided.
Alas, Thomas chose to hitch his wagon to Beckman’s star. That was foolish. And as a result, Thomas needs to hit the road too so an untarnished AD can lead the coaching search and department makeover.
I expect that’s likely to happen once Illinois names a permanent chancellor. And if (or when) that new AD is hired, here’s my checklist of what should be done to finally get the Illini football program on track.
And avoid future embattle scars.
1. Ask admissions to relax
Illinois’ admissions standards for athletes are more stringent than the minimum requirements established by the NCAA, which has long been used as an excuse for Illini football struggles.
I think the bigger problem has been poor coaching hires. But that said, it would behoove an AD to ask the new president and chancellor if a small number of marginal qualifiers could be admitted each year. That could help the school’s athletic reputation without harming its academic one.
2. Elevate the vision
Yes, Illinois admissions standards are tough. But so are those at Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke and Northwestern, elite private institutions that have all managed to field competitive football programs in recent years.
If Illinois admissions aren’t relaxed – or even if they are – an AD should lay out a grander vision that positions the university’s lofty academic expectations as a selling point for recruits rather than a coaching hindrance.
3. Hire smarter
To attract smart recruits, you need a smart coach. And after more than a decade with Ron Zook and Beckman patrolling the Illini sidelines – and podiums – Illinois desperately needs to hire a truly sharp football coaching mind, one whose smarts are on par with the student body’s.
4. Get Shahid Khan on board
Shahid Khan, the 65-year-old owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. of the English Football League, is worth $4.6 billion and ranks No. 121 on the Forbes 400. He’s also an Illini alum and passionate fan.
In recent years, there’s been a rumored fallout between Khan and the university’s administration. An Illinois AD must mend those fences and bring the billionaire booster back into the fold.
5. Revisit the Chief proposal
Halftimes at Memorial Stadium lack the buzz that they used to boast as nine seasons after his retirement Chief Illiniwek is still sorely missed.
Two years ago, the men who once portrayed the university’s former symbol submitted a plan to the university administration that would have brought back a tribe-endorsed incarnation of the Chief on a trial basis. He wouldn’t dance and his costume would have been developed in consultation with the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, one of the original Native American members of the Illini Confederation, which could also benefit from up to $200,000 a year in apparel sales, donations and fundraising.
The Peoria were interested in moving forward with discussions, but former Chancellor Phyllis Wise was not. She dismissed what could have been a win-win for the school, the fans and the tribe.
With Wise now gone, an AD would be wise to revisit it.