Tim Beckman accepted the Illinois football coaching job a little more than 12 months ago as a jovial, football-y sound-byte machine. But his tone changed quickly during a disastrous 2-10 season as he experienced intense criticism and even calls for his firing after one year.
His volume has been turned down as well. No talk can dig him out of his first-year hole, so Beckman and his staff simply have put all their energies into tough, gritty work - most of it on the recruiting trail during the contact period the past few weeks.
With the recruiting dead period starting Monday and extending through Jan. 3, Beckman took time to join OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner and co-host Lon Tay on their radio show, the "Tay and J Show," on ESPN Radio 93.5/95.3 in Champaign on Wednesday afternoon.
Beckman talked about his disappointing first season at Illinois, the five junior-college players who recently signed, his staff, athletic director Mike Thomas, rumors about his job status and the futures of Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown. Following is that conversation.
You went 2-10 last year, but you currently have one of the top-25 recruiting classes in the country according to Rivals.com. Kids are still buying into what you're selling here at Illinois.
Tim Beckman: "Well, we tell them they're going to be immediate impact Illini. That's the truth. They're going to be guys that have opportunities to get on the field and start their career. I think our coaching staff has done an excellent job with relaying that message to these young football players. We're excited about them getting involved in this program and pushing it forward."
You signed five junior-college kids today. What do they add for you?
Beckman: "Depth. That was the big concern I had last year. With a lot of the injuries, it was one of the problems. You can't just blame it on that. I think it immediately creates some depth for us. We signed d-linemen. We signed o-linemen. We signed a wide receiver and we signed a couple defensive backs. In all areas. It wasn't just, 'We need to go load up on d-linemen; we need to go load up on o-linemen.' It was in every area. The second thing about these young men is two of them won national championships (Barr and Hinkhouse at Iowa Western). They were considered the best team in junior-college football … so they know what it takes to win championships."
Obviously you add JUCO kids to make an immediate impact. You had many holes, but are Dallas Hinkhouse and Abe Cajuste guys that are going to have to make an immediate impact?
Beckman: "I think so. They're going to compete. We got players here. We just don't have a lot in numbers. They're two young men that we think that can come in here and play. I know Dallas has that work ethic. He played on a national championship team and did a fabulous job for the last two years. Abe was an All-California defensive lineman. Heck, he bench-pressed 225 (pounds) 38 times so that's plenty of strength, and we'll know he'll be able to rush that passer also."
It obviously was a tough first season for you at Illinois. Looking back, why did 2-10 happen?
Beckman: "Well, I think there's a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is it was 2-10. We got to get ourselves better, and we got to move forward. That's one of the things that you fight. Our players, I gave them one day off after that game up north (a season-ending 50-14 loss at Northwestern). We got back busy, started our workout preparations. We got to move forward. You got to learn from that stuff, and you got to move forward. The way we're moving forward is taking care of each day that we're out there in society, in the weight room and getting ourselves better and moving forward."
Did you learn anything about yourself as a coach this year and is there anything you would have changed?
Beckman: "I'd change the 2-10 to 10-2, there's no question about that. I've been very blessed with being around a lot of winning. …I did learn. There are some things I definitely needed to do better. The situation with the dipping stuff and all that stuff, that's just uncalled for and I shouldn't have done that. There were some things, yeah. You always fine-tooth comb it when you're 2-10, there's no question about that."
I always heard from players, "We just got to buy in." Some of these upper-classmen had some relative success here at Illinois under the last coaching staff with back-to-back bowl games. Was buy-in a problem and how hard was it to try to make players buy in?
Beckman: "I really do think that the seniors did buy in. I wish it would've been better. The honest truth was that they did lose six games in a row (in 2011). They did win six games and did go to bowl games, but there were some issues we had to get fixed. No we didn't play any better this year, not as good this year, but I do think this football team understands what we ask. We did ask some different things than maybe previously, and I think that there was a little bit of bucking with that."
Do you think that'll be better next year?
Beckman: "No question. It's already better. Since we've been getting it rolling, it's gotten a little bit better. I'm proud of the way the guys are moving. Bottom line, it's got to get better, right? It's got to get better because we're not going to settle for 2-10. Nobody wants to be 2-10. I can tell you this head football coach doesn't want to be 2-10."
After a tough season, most people assumed there'd be some turnover with the staff. Are you sticking with your staff that you had this past year?
Beckman: "You know, I'm not talking about that. I don't think that's the business of anybody right now. I'm happy with the staff that I have. They're working extremely hard. I know it's just Rivals and all that stuff, but we're rated in the top-25 in the country in our recruiting class. We just need to continue to do that."
We talked with athletic director Mike Thomas a few weeks ago. At the time, he hadn't sat down and talked with you yet. Have you had the chance to discuss the season…
Beckman: "Sure have."
What was discussed in that?
Beckman: "It was everything. Everywhere I've been, at Toledo we did the same thing. It's just going over everything from good to bad. Anything. Mike Thomas is an unbelievable athletic director. He asks how he can help, how he can help the program. He does a phenomenal job. He's a winner. He's been around what it takes to win. He's had change like he did at Cincinnati. They might not have been as successful their first year under Butch Jones, but Butch got that thing taken care of. Mike does an outstanding job."
When we talked Mike, I felt like I had to ask him - even if I necessarily didn't want to - but there was so much noise about you and possibly getting dismissed. What was your reaction to all of it?
Beckman: "I went out and recruited. That's what I did. I know what has to be done here. It's about players and making sure that you got the players. That's exactly what I did. I don't have time to read all that stuff. I just have time to try to make this team better. That's my goal, and that's what I want these football players to be. I want them to be the best they can be as football players and human beings. That's what I'm going to do."
You bring some JUCO kids in to help bridge that gap and try to win some games this next year. With all that talk, do you feel any added pressure to win this year?
Beckman: "You know what? I think you need to win every year. I've been around winning. It was about five years ago that I was coaching in the national championship game (in 2006 as the Ohio State defensive backs coach). That's the best of the best, I believe. A little over a year ago, I had just taken a team to its second bowl game (at Toledo). You can't forget how to coach football in one year. It just doesn't happen that way. I've been very blessed and won a lot of football games. We got to get back to that."
It seems as though Akeem Spence is going to go to the NFL after graduating. What can you tell us about that?
Beckman: "I'm proud of Akeem. We battled last year to keep Akeem because he could've really gone out last year. He sat in this office and said he was ready to come back and be a part of the 2012 Illini football team. He came back and sat back on the couch after the season was over. He's got his degree. He's graduating on December 22nd. I'm proud of Akeem. He'll be a good NFL football player. I know he'll be successful."
Has linebacker Jonathan Brown sat down on that couch and had a conversation yet?
Beckman: "Jonathan's all fine and dandy here. He loves his Illini. He's excited about coming back and playing an injury-free football season."
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, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU