Cubit Cares: Illini players find father away from home

Offensive+Coordinator+Bill+Cubit+watches+his+team+warm+up+against+Cincinnati+on+Sept.+7%2C+2013.
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Cubit Cares: Illini players find father away from home

Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit watches his team warm up against Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2013.

Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit watches his team warm up against Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2013.

Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit watches his team warm up against Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2013.

Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit watches his team warm up against Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2013.

By Sean Neumann

Smiling, Bill Cubit remembers a time in high school when he slid into third base.

He had just slapped a triple into the outfield and when he stood up on the bag, he locked eyes with his father on the other side of the fence. Bill Cubit Sr. wasn’t supposed to be there — he had a meeting two and a half hours away that night. But what the teenage Cubit had learned growing up was that his father was always there.

“It didn’t make a difference where I was, he was always there for me,” said Cubit, now Illinois football’s offensive coordinator. “That’s why with these kids, you want to be around them because some of them don’t have their family here after every game and I always had that. It was always comforting for them to be there.”

Cubit’s father died before the 2013 season, his first with Illinois — a large part of the reason why minutes after receiver Justin Hardee’s mother passed away, Cubit was one of his first calls.

“I still remember that call,” Cubit said. “I was outside of a high school in Florida. He called me and he was bawling his eyes out. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He says, ‘Coach, I just lost my mom.’ And you sit there and go, ‘Holy smokes, this kid’s calling me five minutes after his mother dies?’

“When you step back and you go, ‘Why did he call me?’?”

Why Cubit

For Geronimo Allison — a wide receiver from Tampa, Florida — it’s about having a father figure when many players lack one as a college student.

“He strives for perfection and he has his set ways that he wants it. If it’s not that way, he’s going to make sure he puts you in the position to get it right,” Allison said. “That’s basically what a dad does: He’s going to steer you in the right direction and make sure you get there.”

Cubit’s coaching style echoes the similarities of his own father’s lessons.

“There were certain guidelines,” Cubit said. “I never went to a party in high school because he didn’t want me there. I never wanted to disappoint him. I remember plenty of talks where he’d go, ‘This is what I expect,’ and that’s what I did.”

For starting quarterback Wes Lunt, it was the coach’s ability to remain personable during a tough quarterback battle in training camp and through exhausting team meetings that made him realize he was a part of a family at Illinois — not just another football team.

“He’s not afraid to talk and just ask you how you’re doing,” Lunt said. “With those long meetings and that grind of camp, just to take time out of your day just to ask how everybody is doing, I think that means a lot.

“He just really cares. It’s way more than football.”

And for Cubit, it’s always been about something more than football. Sports were always a way to connect with his father.

Cubit Sr. attended nearly every game his son was ever a part of — from high school football, basketball and baseball, to college football at Delaware, to a coaching career that has taken him from the likes of Sharon Hill High School in Pennsylvania to Illinois. 

“Before our first game last year, I had his mass card and I was tearing up a little,” Cubit said, recalling the first game after his father’s death. “Somebody asked me what’s the matter and I said this is my first game my dad hasn’t seen me or been there or watched on TV. And then somebody said, ‘Well, he’s got the best seat in the house.’”

If Cubit Sr. was watching, he would’ve seen his son make an immediate impact with a troubled football program.

In the coach’s first year with Illinois, the team improved offensively. The Illini scored 156 more points in Cubit’s first season, while the team’s total offensive yards went up from 296.7 yards per game to 426.7 yards per game.

“You want them to win, because they put so much time and effort into it and you see it everyday,” Cubit said. “You see the work ethic that they put into it. At the end, you’re responsible. But at the same time, you’ve got to work with those kids who put in all that time and it didn’t work for them. That, to me, drives you more as a coach, you know? What can you do more so that they don’t have that feeling?”

The Illini have been slowly raising their numbers in the win column, too. The team went 2-10 the year before Cubit arrived, then went 4-8 in his first season. Now, Illinois is off to a 2-1 start and is looking to qualify for a bowl game.

It’s Cubit’s outlook that drew a slew of junior college transfers to Illinois last season, including Allison and even defensive end Jihad Ward — a player who spends his time on the opposite side of the ball but connects with the coach, having grown up without a father. 

“In JUCO and in high school, you don’t really get a lot of positive things,” Ward said. “You get tired of that and you don’t want to be around negativity all the time.”

Without the student-athletes being able to clear their heads, they wouldn’t be able to focus on football, according to the coach.

“These kids have got issues too,” Cubit said. “You’re in there almost every single day dealing with it. I mean, it’s never ending. Everybody looks at (being a college football player) and thinks it’s just one big happy utopia, but it’s not. These kids have got some real-life issues like everybody else does. Then you’ve got to go out there in front of everybody and perform.”

In his year and a half with the Illini, Cubit has erased what he calls a “victim mentality” in many players’ minds — thinking the coach was picking on them in practice or being harsh. Cubit’s been able to easily connect with the Illini roster and said there’s always different ways to push each player for them to reach their potential on and off the field.

“I told them a few weeks ago: ‘Who are you playing for? When you walk off the field, will the person you’re playing for be disappointed in your effort?’” Cubit said.

When his players are on the field, Cubit is their No. 1 fan. And it’s clear he’s not just pulling for results on the scoreboard, but also in the players’ personal growth — whether it’s maturing their personality or learning to fight through the battles life throws at them.

“You’ve got to be there for them every second of the day,” Cubit said, echoing the same mantra his father took with him.

Now in Hardee’s first season after losing a parent of his own, he goes up to Cubit before every game to remind him: “Hey Coach, two angels are looking down on us.”

Sean can be reached at spneuma2 @dailyillini.com and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.