At 1:35 p.m. ET on Friday, a tweet expressing excitement about the Illinois football opener vs. Kent State next Friday appeared on Tim Beckman's Twitter account. Within an hour, Illinois had fired him, the rare dismissal of a coach one week before the start of a season. (The Twitter account has since been deleted.)
While Beckman's job was already in trouble because of a 12-25 record as head coach of the Fighting Illini over three seasons, his firing occurred for worse reasons. Three months ago, accusations by former player Simon Cvijanovic sparked a university investigation into alleged mistreatment of player injuries. On Friday, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas fired Beckman because the preliminary results of the investigation confirmed the accusations, with the full report still to come.
"During a preliminary briefing from the external reviewers, 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," an Illinois release said. "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."
Illinois fired Beckman with cause, meaning it does not owe him the $3.1 million left on his contract or the $743,000 buyout. Based on the preliminary reports, Illinois had no choice but to make this move, regardless of his on-field record. In an era in which we are increasingly aware of the dangers of football, as well as the lack of protection and rights for college athletes, the allegations against Beckman paint a picture of a coach not making the welfare of his players his top priority. That alone is a fireable offense, and is why Illinois has made a move so near the start of the season.
In response, Beckman released a statement defending himself, saying, in part, that he denies "the implications in Mike's statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players."
Beckman has spent a lot of time expressing his excitement for that Kent State game, because this offseason has been a disaster for him, although cracks have shown in the Beckman era from the start. There were the overt attempts to poach Penn State players after the Sandusky scandal sanctions were announced. He's chastised the media for not being more positive about Illinois football. After a 2-10 debut season in which Illinois lost all but one Big Ten game by double digits, he's never developed much support from the fan base. He even got into a heated sideline dispute, caught on camera, with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who is now the interim head coach.
Beckman improved to 4-8 in 2013, then saved his job last season by winning the last two games against shorthanded Penn State and Northwestern teams to earn a Heart of Dallas Bowl bid, which the Illini lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18. Expectations were not exactly high this season, and the accusations by Cvijanovic and a few others have made it feel inevitable that the Beckman era wasn't going to last much longer.
At Big Ten media days in July, Beckman had a bizarre press conference in which he refused to address the allegations at all, constantly evading questions and attempting to shift attention to the 2015 season and that opener against Kent State. Beckman knew he wouldn't be able to hide from them for long, and on Friday the inevitable happened, just sooner than expected.
Beckman may have produced a pair of eight-win seasons at Toledo, but throughout his tenure it seemed clear that, despite the modest on-field improvement, he was in over his head as the head coach of a Big Ten team. Now, it's reasonable to believe that Illinois is actually making a coaching upgrade by handing the job off on an interim basis to Cubit, who improved the Illini offense since arriving in 2013 and went 51-47 as head coach at Western Michigan from 2015-12.
The uncertainty about Beckman's job is now in the past, but Illinois will still go through the season with questions lingering at the university. Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced her resignation a few weeks ago, and while Cubit is the interim coach, Illinois will have to hire a permanent coach, with questions about whether Thomas will remain as athletic director.
Illinois is now in a winnable division in the Big Ten West, but it has struggled to sustain success for years, with only six bowl appearances in the last 20 seasons. The Illini did go to the Rose Bowl in 2007 and win a Big Ten title in 2001, but any success seems to come as a one-time thing.
It was clear to most that Beckman wasn't the answer for Illinois football a while ago, and thus his removal as coach on Friday is a step in the right direction, even if a coaching change just seven days before a season is a difficult hurdle to clear.