With Beckman retained, Banks’ status looms as big question for Illini

News broke Monday that Tim Beckman would be retained as the head coach of Illinois football, though it’s not really “news” so much as “confirmation of our expectations.”

I have no idea what Beckman is like on a personal level with his players, what kind of a mentor he is for guys like Nathan Scheelhaase and Jonathan Brown and other players he didn’t recruit. I don’t know whether the father-figure mantle he insists he’s always taken up has been a media mirage or a genuine mission. But we see his impact reflected in the attitudes of his players, and the change in the program from last year’s slog to this year’s spirited campaign is undeniable. The decision to bring Beckman back was a no-brainer.

Numbers don’t tell the story. The 2012 team’s record of 2-10 doesn’t capture the badness, the 2013 record of 4-8 doesn’t capture the improvement.

Beckman came in last season talking, seriously, a Big Ten championship. The shirts hailed a new era, the buzz reached a roar, and Illinois fans gave football a chance. Briefly.

It was apparent early and often that Illinois was not good; the ONE bracelets that referenced the Big Ten title game were either thrown away or worn as a scarlet letter of misguided expectations. Blowout loss after blowout loss, Skoalgate, and enough failed read-options to fulfill some absurd, nonexistent metaphor — it was as bad as it could have possibly been. Beckman struggled with the pressure, but he persevered, and he was not let go after last year.

Then the buy-in occurred from the players, and the new era began in earnest.

Most people probably don’t realize that Illinois beat a team in Cincinnati that is now 9-2 and playing in a major conference title game. The Big Ten losing streak is over, whether Purdue deserves to be in the FCS or not. Illinois suffered several losses, but only one was a blowout of the caliber that 2012 seemed exclusively comprised.

Beckman has the attention of his players now. And he may not be the most eloquent or the most disciplinarian of coaches, but his enthusiasm and passion have started to take effect and those traits are invaluable in a college football coach.

There are questions on both sides of the ball for Illinois going forward. How will Aaron Bailey and Wes Lunt share quarterback duties? Who will replace the three senior receivers from this year’s squad?

The biggest question, however, is at the top of the defense: Beckman has been retained, but what about defensive coordinator Tim Banks?

Banks’ unit was terrible all season long. Jonathan Brown played excellently, leading the team with 119 total tackles. Second on the team in tackles was Earnest Thomas III with 101 — Thomas is a safety, the team’s last line of defense. Zane Petty, another safety, came in fourth with 75.

Banks had to face the media game after game and tell them some combination of the following: my team is really young and not that good yet, I’m not coaching well enough, we had several bad plays but also had good plays. That’s telling the media, respectively: It’s not my fault, it’s not their fault, we’re actually playing well. He’s had to balance out those three answers as more and more people begin to wonder about his job security.

The sentiments about Banks usually fall into three categories: The results speak for themselves, fire him; he’s had nothing to work with, give him another chance; and, he’s had nothing to work with, but the results speak for themselves, so fire him anyway.

In general I find myself wanting to give coaches more time to implement their systems and stake their culture into a program. I find no exception regarding Banks.

He could easily be fired, used as a scapegoat for the season. But as he did with Beckman, Mike Thomas should exercise patience with Banks. Let his players develop under him and see whether he can turn it around.

Having said that, I would be somewhat surprised if he remained on as defensive coordinator because that’s how college sports work. But I’ve certainly been wrong before.

Anyone who thought Beckman would be fired after this season wasn’t following the program very closely. The real question for the Illini is if the one leading its defense will get the same chance for a turnaround that was afforded to its head coach.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.