As we moved into a new University of Illinois football season with a new head coach, a new staff and a new sense of hope, most fans were hoping for a quick liftoff.
Halfway through season No. 1, there’s a feeling Air Beckman is still sitting on the runway or worse — being towed back to the hangar for repairs.
The latest delay grounding any sense of progress is “Skoalgate,” the controversy that arose when head coach Tim Beckman was caught on camera pinching smokeless tobacco from a can of Skoal while on the sideline during Saturday’s game at Wisconsin.
It was a double-dumb move, and Beckman knows that now.
First of all, it’s an NCAA violation. Not the kind that will land a program on probation, but AD Mike Thomas had to work with the school’s compliance office and craft a letter of apology to the Big Ten Conference, which turned the matter over to the NCAA. A letter of admonishment will be placed in Beckman’s file.
Beckman will be educated further on why the NCAA prohibits tobacco products at its events. If it’s a one-time lapse in judgment, the matter will end. If he’s a habitual snuff dipper, he’ll do hard time in Jim Tressel’s basement.
I make a joke of it knowing full well it’s not funny to those who correctly point out Beckman was setting a very poor example to young people who may have been watching. As the CEO of the Illini football program making $1.6 million this year to run the shop in an exemplary way, this makes him look like a rube.
The two actions Beckman has orchestrated that have brought Illinois national attention are the eight assistant coaches who were dispatched to Penn State in search of potential transfers and the use of chewing tobacco during a nationally televised game. You hoped for more positive press.
But this isn’t about beating up on Beckman. It is about the move to a new head coach, a transition that has been more difficult than expected but is far from rare.
It’s become apparent the veterans on this team, especially on defense, have resisted the buy-in any new coaching staff needs. They miss their former defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning. As the cliche goes, they’d have run through a brick wall for him.
The new defensive coordinator, Tim Banks, may prove to be very capable. But if he asked those players to run through a brick wall, they’d gladly run around it.
The message I got from the players-only meeting the night before the Wisconsin game is they felt more comfortable talking about team’s shortcomings away from the coaches, in part because they have not yet reconciled complete trust for these coaches.
That part is not new at Illinois.
Remember when Bill Self arrived at Illinois in 2000 to take over the basketball program?
Even though Self’s first team got off to a decent start, there was resistance within the squad to accept his ways.
Self finally had a heart-to-heart with his players, pleading with them to trust him. Finally, they bought in.
That team finished 27-8, shared the Big Ten title and reached the NCAA Elite Eight.
Remember when Bruce Weber took over for Self in 2003?
Dee Brown thought about transferring. A 19-point loss to Providence was considered a sign of the apocalypse. Consecutive Big Ten losses to Purdue and Northwestern created a sense of emergency.
Finally, Weber’s mock funeral, in which he wore a black suit and tossed a rhetorical shovel of dirt on Self’s legacy, made national news. But after a loss at Wisconsin in January, the team won 14 of its final 16, won the Big Ten title and reached the Sweet 16.
The next year the team went to the NCAA title game.
Self and Weber ultimately turned the tide by winning games. Beckman does not have that working for him.
When a team is losing, an embarrassment like “Skoalgate” stings all the more. It invites ridicule.
If Beckman and his team were 5-1, Illini fans everywhere would be dipping into the tin as a gesture of unity.
Everyone wants to see signs that Beckman knows how to get this program off the ground. We’re still waiting. He would be helped if he started helping himself.
Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois athletics for Lee Enterprises. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.