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December 19, 2013
Q&A: In-depth with Illini coach Tim Beckman
Tim Beckman sounds tired. Two seasons of too few wins, too little sleep and intense criticism take a toll on a man. Thankfully for Beckman, he'll finally receive a few rare days off as he and his family vacation to Florida next week.
But before he sets off for a much-needed sojourn, Beckman caught up with OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner and talked openly about the stresses of the job, the addition of nine new players, the return of his two coordinators, negativity surrounding his program and his optimism for 2014.
Coach, you added players to your program. How did your program get better today?
"I think first and foremost, we ended up gathering nine young men that are winners. They've been in state championships. They've been in national championships. They've been in a bunch of bowl games, so we're excited about having those young men aboard. We got four junior college and five high-school players. I think it'll add depth with junior-college players and age to our roster. These five young freshmen will be great additions because they've shown they can do it in the classroom to graduate early to be successful in the classroom and on the field."
You need players to play now but take me through the process of how you weigh whether you offer a guy who could be here two to three years over a guy who could be here four to five years.
"Some of the interesting things with some of the junior college players is they are [four years to play three], so they actually have three seasons. It's a little bit different than some of the junior-college players that have come in here and are three for two. To be able to get a young man and get him involved in our program before the season starts as a junior-college football player, I think that's huge, especially this spring ball time. As you look at our depth chart, we just don't have a big junior and senior class. There's not a lot of scholarship football players in the senior and junior classes. This does add age to our football team."
You're in a stressful, stressful business. I know you love this business and have been involved in it your whole life. Honestly, how do you deal with that stress and maybe more importantly, how do you as a head coach, try to relieve that stress with your assistant coaches?
"This week, we're usually out recruiting. One of the things I try to do for our coaches when they're out recruiting is that once we get back on Friday the first thing we do when we get in for the coach's sake and it's a great addition for recruiting is we have all the families come, the kids, the wives, each coach and all the recruits that come in. So we really make it a family atmosphere. I know that's one of the things that just talking with the assistant coaches, they really appreciate it. I think we're able to get a little time [off] here. Of course, we'd rather be in a bowl game, no question about that if you ask every one of these coaches and every one of these players. We'll be able to get away here over Christmas. Some of us are going down to Florida and I'm going to have the opportunity to go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and meet with their defensive coordinator for a little bit. I'm going to go watch and LSU practice. I guess that's the stress reliever from football. I'm still trying to learn it as much as I can. I think that's just part of the business and it's part of the thing you as a head coach and as assistant coaches you live through. You love the game. You love the kids that you coach. You just keep on moving forward because you know you got great kids to come in and work with."
You never stop learning this game. Over the last couple months, is there a single piece of advice that has really stuck with you the most?
"Becoming a head football coach basically five football seasons ago, it's what your players perceive and what your players believe in. [Your job as a coach is] to be as positive as you can and show them some of the things that they're doing well. There are some things. There's no question we have things we have to get better at, but our players are making strides forward. We're still a young football team, and they got to believe. That's one thing as a football coach you have to constantly strive with these players is believe that they can be successful."
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks has been the focus of a lot of criticism. You could have bowed to public pressure and replaced him. But you chose to bring him back. Why?
"It's not Tim Banks' fault that we don't have a senior class or much of a junior class. That has nothing to do with him. That's what was left here. We played some young players. Of course we didn't play good. I'm not going to sit here and say we played good. But I believe in Tim. I believe in continuity. I believe in the defensive staff. We had a bunch of young kids playing for us. Matter of fact, we had six players that we recruited that started for us. We only had two years to recruit, so those kids are either junior-college players or freshmen or sophomores or redshirt freshmen. Then whoever you had backing them up, the backups are freshmen and sophomores. It's not anything like Michigan State's depth chart where they got six or seven seniors and they're all backed up by juniors. We don't have that right now. But I believe the players love what we're doing defensively. They want to get better, and they believe in Coach Banks, and that's the only one that counts."
Talking with Coach Banks, he's handled the criticism well publicly. He's had success elsewhere, but it hasn't worked out well here yet. Why do you think it can or will in Year 3 with this defense?
"Let me ask you this? Did we do it on offense?"
"Right? We didn't play really well on offense two years ago, but we had a bunch of guys come back as seniors. Nathan Scheelhaase, Steve Hull and Ryan Lankford and those guys made tremendous jumps and made our offense better. We had guys who played a bunch on the offensive line and got ourselves better. We didn't have that situation on defense here last year. I expect to be better and I expect to try to make the jumps we made on offense."
You've consistently said athletic director Mike Thomas has been great. He said he'd meet with you after the season to see what you need in this program. Simple question: what do you need?
"The first thing was to keep [offensive coordinator] Bill Cubit. I think Bill's come in here and done an excellent job with our offense, and will continue to tutor some new quarterbacks and wide receivers. Mike Thomas is a special athletic director now. He has a vision for this department of athletics. He has a vision for the football program, and I think that right now he's very willing to do some of the things that are necessary to get the program better. The main thing that we're focused on right now is recruiting and getting in players that we know can our fit our scheme. They might not be four-stars or five-stars, and every now and then of course we'd love a couple of those too, but look at the depth chart at Baylor, the No. 1 offense, and Michigan State, the No. 1 defense, and you'll see how many four-stars and five-stars they had on those defenses and offenses."
You've led this program for two years, now going into Year 3. The fan base here, and I'm sure you've figured this out, they've been through a lot of bad years here. Understandably, that can lead to impatience and negativity. How does that affect you as a coach and how do you battle that when you're trying to recruit kids and trying to stress the positives of what's happening?
"That's one of the things that you constantly strive to do. Of course, winning takes care of a lot of that, there's no question about that. I understand that. But if this is our program, and we say it's "Our State, Our Team," then if it's realistically our program, we've got to support our program. I would say there were a couple Big Ten teams that might have struggled a year ago and now they're pretty good. Well, the support of their fan base and support for that football team ended up paying off and they won a lot of football games this year. If you look, I'm not sure of the exact number but I think there's six Big Ten teams that improved their record from a year ago. We were one of them. It's not a big jump two to four. I'm not going to be happy with that by any means, but we did get better. We need to make that stride again next year to get this football team better and get this fan base more energetic with where we're moving the program forward. Again, that comes with winning as you all well know, but right now our players are doing what they need to do on and off the field. We did get better. But we still have a ways to go. We're going to get there. We are going to get there."
It is a New Year right around the corner. What excites you about 2014?
"When you look out on defense, you only lose two guys on your two-deep. You got a lot of young guys. I look forward to working with those guys on defense. Offensively, we'll have a lot of new faces, but we really feel that we got a good nucleus of backups that can come in and be factors for us. I think we've met some of the goals with the receivers by bringing in some of these receivers in January. I'm excited about this team. I just got done meeting with all 108 of them. We spent 10 minutes with each. It took me about three days, but we did it. We talk about what we want to do. Well, the kids excite me. That's what excites me about 2014. They're energetic. They're excited. They're taking these next four weeks that we're off. They're not just going home. They're going to study film on their iPad. We put every NFL game on their iPad, so they can study their favorite NFL player. We took every one of our games, so we can study every game they played. They're going to be challenged to do those types of things for these next four weeks. I'm excited about meeting with each one of them and them saying, 'I can't wait to get back, coach, and we're going to get this thing rolling with winter workouts.'"
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU