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July 26, 2012
Beckman rocked, shifting weight between his left and right legs.
"I have a problem with that," Meyer said from the podium at the Big Ten football media days.
Beckman continued to rock back and forth.
Meyer repeated himself: "I have a problem with that."
Forget for a minute the hypocrisy of Meyer, who drew the ire of his Big Ten peers this winter for recruiting prospects who were committed to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. But his answer was a direct shot at Beckman and his staff.
On Thursday, Beckman was hit with a barrage of questions about Illinois' now-public pursuit of multiple Penn State players. His ethics have been questioned for sending eight assistant coaches to State College to meet with current members of the Nittany Lions program.
Beckman broke no rules - following its unprecedented sanctions of Penn State the NCAA said other programs could recruit PSU players as long as the program provided PSU's compliance office with a list of players it planned to contract - but the first-year Illinois coach knew the interrogation was imminent a day after ESPN reported that coaches carrying Illinois bags passed Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien at the airport.
As he took the podium before a live TV audience, Beckman addressed Thursday's hot topic before he was even asked about it. He again talked about it at length with reporters after leaving the podium.
"We're just following rules and we're compliant with everything the Big Ten and the NCAA has asked us to do," Beckman said. "It wasn't a sneak attack because it was all out front prior to us even being there.
"It was the bag the (assistants) were carrying. I didn't want it to be a big scene or anything like that. It ended up being more of a scene that it was. Everything that we've done has been NCAA compliant. Penn State knew and everything we were doing was already previously done before we ever went."
Beckman said the UI assistants never set foot on the Penn State campus. Rather, they sat at an off-campus restaurant and offered prospective PSU transfers, at least two who had previously reached out to the UI staff, the opportunity to meet them. A few did.
Beckman said he pursued players that contacted him, players he has past relationships with from his days at Toledo. He didn't sit outside the football facilities handing out flyers.
But it was clear on Thursday that O'Brien, who inherited a mess at Penn State, took exception to Beckman's tactics.
Asked what schools were in Happy Valley recruiting PSU players, O'Brien said, "I have no idea if any schools were on campus, nor do I care."
Asked if he had talked to Beckman, Bill O'Brien simply said, "No," and waited for the next question.
Yesterday, O'Brien applauded other coaches, like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, for contacting him to forewarn him that they were recruiting his players. Beckman did not reach out to O'Brien and doesn't plan to. But Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas did contact Penn State AD Dave Joyner to alert them to Beckman's intentions, and Beckman said he also talked briefly with Joyner.
Opinions on the matter differed among other Big Ten coaches.
Purdue coach Danny Hope backed Beckman's stance saying that he had no problem pursuing PSU players because he's "going to exercise every opportunity we can to enhance our own football team" within NCAA rules.
Many coaches - including Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Indiana's Kevin Wilson and Minnesota's Jerry Kill - said they aren't actively pursuing Penn State players, but all would consider taking one who reached out to them. Ferentz called the PSU situation "complex" and "confusing" but that it's just a "matter of what people deem appropriate."
Others made a judgment call not to pursue PSU players.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he has a "genuine respect" for "a Big Ten brother" and decided not to pursue Penn State players. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald also decided he would not contact PSU players. Though he pointed out that he wasn't criticizing other coaches for choosing to do the opposite. Michigan coach Brady Hoke confided that he looked down the Penn State roster but said he will not further pursue Penn State players to "keep our business our business."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin - three of the deepest programs in the conference - are not going after players on a mediocre PSU roster, while the lower-tier teams are open to the idea.
No matter what the coaches think, the Big Ten presidents and athletic directors had the chance to weigh in on whether PSU players could transfer within the conference - normal transfer rules make it difficult for intraconference transfers - and came to a unanimous consensus to allow such transfers.
"This is not about competition between and amongst schools," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "It's about the student-athlete having the full spectrum of opportunities. If they're free to attend Rutgers or Pittsburgh, they should be free to attend Illinois, Missouri or wherever the rules apply."
Delaney said he would prefer if conference coaches kept "collegial" relationships but he said he did not discuss the matter with specific coaches.
O'Brien has a tough task of keeping his inherited players on campus, but it's a job he signed up for.
But Beckman has a job too. He has a job to win games, within NCAA rules, at a historically tough place to win. The Illinois roster he inherited from Ron Zook sorely lacks depth, especially on the offensive line and at wide receiver. He isn't the only coach pursuing Penn State players. Illinois is just the only one that so far was identified and leaked to the media.
Could it be seen as a little icky that eight Illinois assistants were near the Penn State campus? Sure. But if you've noticed all the recent scandals and history of scandals, college football is kind of an icky business.
Beckman understands the questions about if he's showed a lack respect to a fellow conference member.
"Yeah, but I also feel there's respect for those individuals that want to transfer," he said. "That was what we were doing. We just wanted to try to give the student-athlete an opportunity if they would like to change and come to the University of Illinois, that's what they (could) do."
Beckman survived the barrage. Unapologetically, he stood by his stance. He's just doing what most other coaches - including former colleague and new rival Urban Meyer - are paid to do: pursue players who want to play for and improve his program - all within clearly stated NCAA rules.
"I recruited at Ohio State and am recruiting the same way at Illinois as I did at Ohio State," Beckman said. "We're recruiting with the same philosophies that we've done at Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Toledo and now at Illinois."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM