Let's take a trip back to 2011. Ron Zook goes 6-6 and gets fired, after reaching back-to-back bowl berths. What was the methodology that went into Zook's firing? Was it completely justified?
Robert: The methodology was simple. Our 19-year athletic director, Ron Guenther, resigned (or was possibly forced out) in June, new athletic director Mike Thomas was hired in August, and Zook was fired in November. Basketball coach Bruce Weber was later fired in March as well. This was all about a fresh start.
Zook's team in 2011 started 6-0 and was ranked 15th after Big Ten wins over Northwestern and Indiana. Then it crumbled to a 6-6 (2-6) finish, which put Zook's seven year Big Ten record at 18-38, which is what Mike Thomas pointed to when he fired him.
Was it justified? I think so. The former atheltic director (Guenther) was a loyalty guy. He held on to Ron Turner after Turner went 5-7 the year after the Sugar Bowl in 2002 and then fell to 1-11 in 2003. Turner got one more year in 2004, went 3-8, and was fired. Bruce Weber gave Illinois basketball their worst five-year run since the 1970's -- and Guenther wouldn't fire him. (Thomas did.) Meanwhile, Zook went from the Rose Bowl to 5-7 to 3-9 -- and kept his job. If you look at Illinois' attendance numbers, they fell off the cliff after that: 5,000 less attendees per year despite going 6-6 in 2010 and 2011.
So it was time. 18-38.
There's been some, shall we say, "spirited debate" that goes on between Illini fans about whether or not Zook should have been retained for another year, given how Beckman fared in 2012. Can you weigh in on this?
Robert: I was singing Zook's praises as late as October 2011 before grabbing a torch and pitchfork in November. Illini fans loved Ron Zook because Ron Zook could recruit. We had nineteen NFL Draft picks from 2008 to 2012. The 2008 recruiting class alone had Jeff Allen (Chiefs), Glenn Foster (Saints), A.J. Jenkins (Chiefs), Mikel Leshoure (Lions), Corey Liuget (Chargers), Whitney Mercilus (Texans), Nate Palmer (Packers), Graham Pocic (Rams), and Tavon Wilson (Patriots). By comparison, Minnesota has had two NFL players the last five years. Illinois had nine in just that one class. So the general feeling was that if Zook could find some coordinators - any coordinators - he could be successful with all the talent he was bringing in.
The problem was that he never really built a program. I'm too lazy to look up my post, but I believe that I can quote this stat correctly: from 2007 to 2009, Zook brought in 71 players. Only 31 of those players walked on Senior Day. When you're constantly rebuilding with younger talent, you're not going to win many games. The end of 2011 proved that once and for all. We had a few injuries, and the team completely crumbled because there was never any depth. So, bye-bye, Zooker.
Talk about where the fan base is in relation to the program. How much confidence is there in Tim Beckman?
Robert: I'd say there's very little confidence. Part of that is because of 2012 and 2013, but part of that is Illinois fans having experienced the "Three Strikes" of soul-crushing fandom over the years. Allow me to explain what that means.
In the 1980's, Mike White and John Mackovic built a really solid program. We'd been to the Rose Bowl, won a couple Big Ten titles (White in 1983; Mackovic in 1990), and went to five straight bowls from 1988 to 1992. Illinois was with Michigan State and Iowa in 1990 in the fight for third best program behind Michigan and Ohio State. Then Mackovic left for Texas, Lou Tepper was promoted from defensive coordinator, and the program slowly fell before bottoming out in 1996. That was "Strike One."
Ron Turner was hired and took years to rebuild the program all the way to the Sugar Bowl in 2001. (We actually won the Big Ten, but that year the Rose Bowl was the title game.) Then we fell right back down to 1-11 two seasons later. That was "Strike Two."
Illini fans considered thinking "fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me," but we eventually relented and gave Ron Zook a shot. When he started landing four-star after four-star in recruiting, we gave him a legitimate shot. When he got to the Rose Bowl in 2007, we were ready to build him a statue.
Then 2008 was a 5-7 season. Then in 2009, when Stewart Mandel picked us to win the Big Ten, Vegas had an over-under of eight wins, while everyone from Phil Steele to College Football News to yours truly claimed that this team could win 10 games, we instead finished... 3-9. To top it all off, that season ended when Fresno State, in Champaign, scored a touchdown on the game's final play to send it to overtime. But wait, they're going for two! If they get it, they win; if they miss it, we win. We blitz, their quarterback throws up a prayer, our corner is right there and bats it away in the endzone, and what happens? It falls right into the hands of a 325 lb. offensive guard who runs forward into the endzone for the game winning two-point conversion.
Right there - at that very moment - the fanbase was done. I told a friend walking out that it would be at least five years before Illini fans would embrace the new coach. Then there wasn't a new coach, as Guenther kept Zook. Then we went to back-to-back bowls, and then the fans still left, never to trust again.
That's the environment Tim Beckman has stepped into. I always like to give this example: in 2011, we won our first six straight games, we were ranked #15, and we had a beatable Ohio State team in town. (Remember, it was the Ohio State team which finished 6-7.) Then, on the third play, Illinois screwed something up, and the fans booed. There we were: 6-0, ranked 15th in the country, in a packed house for Ohio State, and the crowd is angry, angry, angry. It turned out they were right: they couldn't trust Zook, and he lost the next six games. But that's the environment.
Okay, so maybe Beckman hasn't exactly helped himself by going 0-8 in the Big Ten followed by 1-7. His biggest mistake thus far has been coordinators. In 2012, he brought in West Virginia's lead recruiter, Chris Beatty, and LSU's lead recruiter, Billy Gonzales. Neither had been a coordinator before, but to get them to switch, he offered them co-offensive coordinator positions. It was a disaster, and the team finished 2-10 (119th in total offense). Defense hasn't been much better, falling to last in the Big Ten last year, and now defensive coordinator Tim Banks is back for a third season. Beckman seems to have fixed the offense by hiring Bill Cubit, but the jury is out on Banks - but they've winked at the lawyer letting him know a conviction is coming.
How much of the current situation is Zook's fault versus Beckman's? What went so wrong that the Illini dropped off a cliff?
Robert: I can answer this easily. Zook never built a roster. He recruited athletes with no regard for position. His famous saying of "We'll get that fixed" was the way he recruited. Secondary not performing well? No problem - just switch two of his uber-athletic wide receivers to cornerback and presto, we got that fixed.
When Beckman was hired in December 2011, I wrote him an "open letter" kind of post talking about the roster. I mentioned how he was going to fall out of his chair when he saw the roster for the secondary. Beckman was inheriting seven seniors - and one redshirt freshman. He'd have a secondary for 2012, but if he wanted any players back there in 2013, he had just six weeks to recruit some. All he had coming in was redshirt freshman cornerback Eaton Spence, and that was it. I know it might sound like I'm making this up, but Ron Zook simply didn't recruit any corners or safeties. There was only one player for the 2013 roster in the defensive backfield.
He moved Earnest Thomas from linebacker to safety (he's now back at linebacker), he tried some wide receivers and running backs there, and he added a JUCO, but last year the two-deep in the secondary was those guys plus a true sophomore and five freshmen.
Because of this, I've given Tim Beckman lots of room to rebuild. As you can imagine, I take a lot of heat for that. I'm not saying he's the answer. I'm just saying we really can't have any idea yet. With no roster balance (the defensive line is similar, as were the wide receivers), there's just no way to determine if Beckman can't build or if Zook left him a complete wasteland. Zook had a run of four classes with 19 NFL players, but then his last three classes might only have one. The team rebounded to 6-6 in both 2010 and 2011, but recruiting didn't. After that Fresno State tipped two-point conversion in 2009, Zook didn't (or couldn't) land another sure-fire NFL player.
How has Beckman's hiring of Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator generally gone over? Are fans completely crazy for speculating that he might replace Beckman as head coach?
Robert: I don't hear much Cubit-to-head-coach speculation, to be honest. I think most fans feel pretty lucky that he was fired as the head coach at Western Michigan, and after someone is fired, schools are hesitant to hire him away. So it's kind of a scanario where he might settle in as offensive coordinator and stay for 5+ years. At least that's the hope.
As far as how his hire has gone over, it's been resoundingly positive. We improved in every offensive category by at least 50 spots. Hiring two recruiters as offensive co-coordinators was an absolute disaster; hiring Cubit seems like a home run.
Let's talk about Wes Lunt. Is he really the savior of the program? What exactly does he bring to the table that has Illini fans so excited?
Robert: There was a scrimmage in Springfield, Illinois the week before the Spring Game. I attended. It was, without question, the best performance I've ever seen at an Illinois football practice, and I watch a lot of Illinois football practices. It was a controlled scrimmage (the drive starts at the fifteen, no punts, you'll start over if you don't pick up a first down) and Lunt was incredible. He had at least four 40+ yard bombs, scored on every drive, never faced a fourth down, and carved up the second string defense like an NFL QB. There's a reason he won the starting job at Oklahoma State as a true freshman, and that reason is his arm and accuracy. He certainly looks the part.
But there's another guy in the mix, too: Beckman's top recruit in his first two classes, Aaron Bailey. He had offers from all kinds of dual-threat QB schools (like Ohio State and Nebraska), but he stayed home and picked Illinois. Last August, at fall camp, when I got a look at both Bailey and Lunt, I liked Bailey a little more. I even think he has a stronger arm than Lunt. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Lunt was only 6-16 in the Spring Game, so it's definitely still up in the air.
I look at it like this. Bailey has a 98 mph fastball, but we're still not sure if he can be a starter. Can he develop a curve? A change-up? Lunt has all those tools and is definitely a #1 starter. Can Bailey take his fastball and build around it? I can't wait to find out.
Any thoughts on the new divisions?
Robert: I couldn't be happier. We avoid Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State while fighting Nebraska and Wisconsin for the division crown? Where do I sign? How did we get this lucky?
With Penn State having their sanctions reduced (nearly eliminated, really), I think all of the power in the conference is in the East. If you look at the history of all the programs, all the power is in the East. Nebraska is really the only program in the West with long-term history. Wisconsin is fantastic right now, but it's only been a 20-year run. From 1960 to 1995 they were fighting Northwestern for worst program in the conference.
So I'm thrilled. I don't think Illinois has any shot at the division this year due to youth. But in 2015, Illinois returns almost everyone again, and I could see a sneak attack.
What's the absolute bare minimum that Beckman has to make in order to be the Illini coach in 2015? Is he seen as a long term project, or does he have legit expectations to meet this season?
Robert: I always put this question to the Kevin Wilson test. Should Indiana have fired Wilson after 5-7 last year? Third year, he has to get six wins, right? He lost to Navy, so he only won five, and Indiana stayed home. Should he have kept his job?
Same question goes for Beckman. If he goes 5-7 this year, what happens? Is he viewed like Wilson, slowly rebuilding a program with lots coming back for the following season and improved recruiting? Or will Mike Thomas be more impatient and move him out the door in search of our next great hope?
My gut tells me Beckman might have to win six games. Still, I could see a scenario where a 5-7 record and a great recruiting class (there's already a few four-stars on board) brings him back for a bowl-or-bust run in 2015.