By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Illinois Fighting Illini have themselves a bowl game. Tim Beckman has himself another season as coach. And the football program now has itself back to where it was in 2011 when Ron Zook was fired after a 6-6 season.
Struggling just to get back to .500 and play in a lower-tier bowl wasn't the plan three years ago when Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas explained Zook's dismissal by stressing a need for increased Big Ten success and declaring that, "It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."
So far, that hasn't proved to be the case with Beckman, as he's posted a record of just 4-20 in conference and 12-24 overall. However, the embattled coach did close out the regular season on a surprising two-game winning streak, earning himself a reprieve from the chopping block.
And so as the Illini use this bonus month of practice time to prep for the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26 – and the 2015 season beyond – here are some action items that I'd suggest Beckman and Thomas put on their to-do list if they hope to give the weary Illinois fan base what it deserves.
1. Win the bowl game
Over the past 25 seasons, Illinois has been to 11 postseason games – and won just five of them. So, considering the infrequency of the bowl experience for Illini fans, it goes without saying that Beckman could help his personal cause by beating Louisiana Tech in Dallas this month.
The Bulldogs may lack luster as a bowl opponent, but they do provide Beckman an opportunity to avenge an embarrassing 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech at Memorial Stadium in 2012 in the fourth game of his Illini tenure and prove that his program has made legitimate strides since then.
Beyond that, a winning season with a 7-6 record and a three-game streak would surely look a lot better to fans – and prospective recruits – than yet another losing one with a bowl defeat and a 6-7 mark.
2. Enroll Beckman in media training
On Sunday evening during the press conference in Champaign announcing the Illini's bowl bid, Beckman told the assembled media, "I can't tell you how honored I am to stand here and be a spokesman for the football team."
But what Beckman – and, perhaps even more importantly, Thomas – need to recognize is that a Big Ten football coach is also the spokesman for his school's fan base and alumni.
And quite simply, Beckman – who's become nationally known for his embarrassing malapropos – needs to step up his game in that crucial regard. If he hopes to gain fan support in 2015, the $1.8 million-per-year coach can't keep embarrassing himself and the program with his own poorly chosen words.
Back in 2009, when former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther surprisingly brought back Zook after a 3-9 season, it came with the requirement that he hire top-notch offensive and defensive coordinators to handle the bulk of the coaching, which was not Zook's strength.
Here in 2014, Thomas can't hire someone to speak for Beckman during his press conferences – which clearly is not his forte – but what he can do is require the coach to undergo some rigorous media training during this offseason. Think of it as his own training regimen.
It's doubtful that Beckman will ever be a great orator, but surely he can do better and at the very least stop putting his foot in his mouth with maddening statements such as, "We were 'X' number of plays away from winning" following lopsided losses.
The Illinois fan base is a smart one. It deserves to be spoken to in a way that respects that intelligence. And as the university's highest-paid employee, Beckman needs to work on that. Thomas, meanwhile, needs to help him.
3. Elevate recruiting
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any football program, but under Beckman the Fighting Illini's incoming talent flow has been anemic.
This past weekend, Illinois picked up a commitment from 6-foot-3, 203-pound linebacker Julian Jones from Atlanta Westlake High School, making him just the fourth defensive player among the 17 players pledged to the Illini thus far in the 2015 class.
No one in that quartet plays on the defensive line, which is terribly troubling for league as rugged as the Big Ten. And while Jones did hold offers from Louisville, Marshall and Wake Forest, he originally was committed to mid-major Arkansas State. If Beckman hopes to succeed in the Big Ten – a requirement originally mandated by Thomas – he has to start actually beating out his own conference foes on the recruiting front.
Otherwise, it's going to be really tough to beat them on the gridiron.
4. Shake up the coaching staff
There's something to be said for continuity among a coaching staff, but it's a lot easier to say it when your program is enjoying serious football success. Despite earning a bowl berth, Illinois' staff hasn't found success consistently.
Only 12,359 fans showed up at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium for Illinois' home finale against Penn State, according to the Champaign News-Gazette. That's a powerful statement of displeasure with the state of the program – and even more worrisome, disinterest in its product. With fans and attendance in mind, Thomas and Beckman can't simply stand pat with the football staff as they head into 2015.
For three years, Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks has fallen under heavy criticism for the team's poor play on his side of the field. This season, Illinois did seem to make some defensive strides down the stretch by limiting Penn State to two touchdowns in a 16-14 victory and holding Northwestern to just seven first-half points in an eventual 47-33 win.
However, it must be noted that Penn State was playing with only 64 scholarship players and Northwestern was using a backup quarterback who repeatedly coughed up the football.
For the season, Illinois still yielded 34 points per game, which doesn't cut it in the Big Ten. Banks has had 36 games to get Illinois' defense straightened out. He hasn't and doesn't appear to be burning up the recruiting trail, either.
It's time for Beckman and Thomas to give someone else the defensive reins to shake things up and also show Illini fans that their absence at home games has been noticed.
5. Promote Mike Dudek in 2015
Also in regards to the fans, Illinois football desperately needs a public face who people can react to positively. It can't continue to be Beckman.
The hope this season was that quarterback Wes Lunt would emerge as the poster boy for the program, but due to injuries and ineffectiveness, that didn't come to be. And heading into the bowl, we may now have more questions about Lunt than confidence in him as a legitimate Big Ten quarterback.
That's why the Illinois athletic department should instead look downfield for its poster boy in 2015 and target receiver Mike Dudek.
Hauling in 69 catches for 965 yards and six touchdowns, the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder from Neuqua Valley set Illinois freshman records for receptions and receiving yards and has been the team's bright spot week in and week out this entire season. In fact, Dudek often seemed to be the only reason to pay attention to games as he showed the best knack for catching a football that I've seen since Brandon Lloyd left the Illini program in 2002.
Already an All-Big Ten second-teamer, if Dudek stays healthy and plays four years in Champaign, he's poised to own the Illini receiving record books. As it stands, I think he already should own the cover of the Illinois media guide next season.
"Dude K" is the most exciting thing that Illini football currently has going for it and the best way to put a positive face on the program come next fall.
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