Illinois and UCLA football traveled different paths after meeting in 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

There was a sense of relief when Nathan Scheelhaase took a knee during the final seconds of the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Defensive lineman Craig Wilson grabbed a container of orange Gatorade and attempted to pour it over interim coach Vic Koenning — he was half successful. The Illinois football sideline was filled with smiles, coaches shaking hands one last time and most players surrounding Koenning and exchanging hugs.

The moment was exciting, but it also marked the end of an era. Athletic Director Mike Thomas fired Ron Zook after his team won its first six games and lost the remaining six and hired Tim Beckman to be the next head coach.

With only a few hours left in 2011, Illinois was ready to enter a new era.

“It was an emotional year, so to end on that note felt great for all of us and for that coaching staff, we knew it was our last hurrah with them. There was just a lot of thanks, appreciation and gratitude amongst one another,” said Scheelhaase, now Illinois’ running backs coach. “When that game finished, we knew it was going to be something new moving forward. We were ready, as that game ended, for the next era of Illini football.”

That game featured two teams who had fired their head coaches a month before the game. Both Illinois and UCLA finished with a 6-6 records and underachieved. The Bruins fired Rick Neuheisel after four years and a 21-29 overall record, 13-23 in the Pac-12. While both teams were starting from the same place, Illinois and UCLA were about to head in different directions.

UCLA’s solution was Jim Mora Jr., an experienced NFL coach with no college experience except a season spent as a graduate assistant at Washington. Mora led UCLA where fans and administration had wanted Neuheisel to lead them. The Bruins finished with a 9-5 record and lost 27-24 to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Mora’s first season. The team finished 10-3 in the next two respective seasons and is 3-0 this season, ranked No. 9 in the nation.

Mora also brought in good recruits. His first recruiting class ranked third in the nation and he followed that with 20th and ninth ranked classes, respectively. The Bruins coach admitted that the transition from the pros isn’t the easiest.

“For me, going from the NFL back to college was easier then maybe sometimes it might be to go from college to the NFL,” Mora said. “You’re dealing with a certain type of verbage you’re using with younger players, and all of a sudden you have to be a little more careful with the older player. I think good coaches are good coaches and they adjust.”

While UCLA attained success with its new coach, Illinois struggled under Beckman. The new head coach didn’t make a good first impression in his introductory press conference and his first season was tarnished with distractions. He was caught using smokeless tobacco on the sidelines at Wisconsin, a NCAA violation, and created laughable sideline moments — he tripped over a referee during a game against Northwestern.

The major issue was the team’s 2-10 record. Zook had been fired for a 6-6 record and his replacement couldn’t match that. The season created tension and was difficult to deal with for most players.

“It was rough, man,” Illinois running back Josh Ferguson said. “It was probably the hardest football season I’ve ever been a part of in my entire life.”

Illinois’ next two season featured progress, with records of 4-8 and 6-6, respectively, and a bowl appearance, but ultimately, the poor performance on the field didn’t end Beckman’s time at Illinois.

He was fired a week before the start of this season after preliminary investigation findings showed Beckman had committed player mistreatment, confirming allegations made by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic via Twitter in May.

Illinois’ future remains uncertain. The Illini will play out the remainder of the season with interim coach Bill Cubit and search for a future coach at the end of the season.

Almost three and a half years after the bowl win, the team finds itself in almost an identical situation as four years ago. The 2015 coaching transition has been smoother because of the familiarity with the coaching staff and an entire season left to have a different ending.

While players focus on this season, they are left with what could’ve been — an era that never lived up to the hype.

“It didn’t reach the level anybody wanted it to,” Scheelhaase said. “I think we had a lot of good people here who cared about one another, and I think that’s something people from that era always hang their hat on.”

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