Beckman’s Illini football vision goes beyond bowl game

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Beckman’s Illini football vision goes beyond bowl game

Illinois' head coach Tim Beckman during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Nov. 29. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' head coach Tim Beckman during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Nov. 29. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' head coach Tim Beckman during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Nov. 29. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' head coach Tim Beckman during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Nov. 29. The Illini won 47-33.

By Sean Neumann

Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman watched as quarterback Reilly O’Toole took the snap and kneeled on the ground at Northwestern’s Ryan Field.

It was the moment he finally knew Illinois had won its sixth game. The moment he knew the Illini reached their preseason goal of achieving a six-win season — a goal seemingly unreachable with a 4-6 record and just two games left.

When O’Toole’s knee touched the ground, Beckman finally knew Illinois was going to a bowl game.

Before the team left Champaign to play Northwestern, the third-year Illini head coach told his team the one thing he wanted to see was the “victory formation” to run out the clock.

To Beckman, seeing that formation meant the Illini had reached a bowl game for the first time in his tenure, despite the odds stacked against them: an injured starting quarterback, an inconsistent defense, the lack of fan support and the looming questions surrounding the program — When will things change?

“There were tears,” Beckman said, remembering the final snap. “They’ve been through a lot — probably more than a lot of football teams have been through. I was very proud.”

Chants of “Beck-man! Beck-man!” rose from the Illini fans who gathered around the barrier to get as close as they could to the team’s celebration on the field. Two weeks prior, the fans and the media were calling for his job.

Now, Beckman and his Illini football team have an opportunity at a bowl victory. Another opportunity to continue building the program — something Beckman has gradually done since his 2-10 debut season with Illinois.

“Six wins is what we had to achieve,” Beckman said. “That’s a start. And that’s probably a realistic start — a reality check for this program.”

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said there still needs to be work done to build the football program, despite giving Beckman a vote of confidence after the bowl-clinching win.

“I’d rather not be 4-6 and have to win the last two games,” Thomas said. “It’s better to be the one being chased than to be the chaser.”

Thomas said the goal for the program is to one day make it hard to get a ticket to a home game week-in and week-out.

“You have to win and you have to win consistently,” Thomas said. “If you build that kind of foundation and that kind of tradition, I don’t think we’ll be sitting here talking about the attendance and the lack of people showing up for University of Illinois football games.”

Illinois had the second-worst attendance average in the Big Ten, with a reported 43,757 fans per game. If you counted the actual fans at Memorial Stadium each Saturday, that number would likely be lower.

But with the team’s turnaround performance resulting in a trip to the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Louisiana Tech, a new confidencesurrounds the team.

“This could really start something and get something rolling for this team and for this program,” defensive back Earnest Thomas said. “It’s going to be very important that (returning players) keep on trying to elevate their game and elevate the culture around this program.”

Beckman said he believes the seniors have elevated that culture and laid the necessary groundwork for Illinois to continue improving in the win column and reintroduce itself to relevancy in the Big Ten. 

A month ago, Beckman was all but laughed out of a press conference when he estimated his then 4-6 Illini could win eight games next season. A month later, Beckman’s prophecy has become believable.

There’s no question in the coach’s mind that playing in a bowl game already puts momentum into his upcoming fourth season in Champaign.

“I said to this football team: ‘Let’s make this a habit,’” Beckman said. “‘Let’s make sure that the seniors that are leaving us have realized that they’ve built something.’”

But what’s being built at Illinois is not yet finished — as Thomas stressed again and again, not by any means. And what’s under construction may not be a Tim Beckman empire but a sustainable program, which he’s proved has the ability to make gradual — yet undeniable — improvements.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Neumannthehuman.