Prior to the season — and for weeks during it — the national media seemed perfectly comfortable writing that Illinois coach Tim Beckman would be fired unless he steered his third Illini team into postseason waters.
That was based on conjecture, rumor, rinse-and-repeat “reporting,” etc. It wasn’t based on conversations with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, at least not any that bore informational fruit. Thomas doesn’t appear to have any of those. Ever.
Beckman himself actually doesn’t seem to know what’s going to happen.
“Nothing has been mentioned to me about that,” he said this week. “I’m just worried about these seniors and giving them the opportunity to take this football team to another step.”
The opportunity to get to 6-6 and bowl eligibility comes Saturday at Northwestern. On the other hand, the possibility of a 5-7 finish — on the heels of 2-10 and 4-8 in Years 1 and 2 — looms ominously.
Could Beckman — who has two years and $3.6 million left on his contract — survive 5-7, with Illinois calling it progress, however slight? On the other hand, would 6-6 even save him?
“I don’t control that. There’s only one person who controls that, and that’s God,” he said. “So we’ll see what happens, but we’re excited about playing.”
Illinois can buy out the remainder of Beckman’s deal for a little more than $1 million. It’s certainly possible we’ll be discussing the fallout from his firing as soon as this Sunday. But Wednesday brought the weekly Beckman-Thomas routine — coffee and football talk in the coach’s office — and continued focus on the season at hand.
“Mike understands exactly what what this program is going and what he wants with this program,” Beckman said.
According to Beckman, Thomas congratulated his coach and said he was “proud” of him after last weekend’s 16-14 victory over Penn State.
“He’s the first guy to see us, the first guy to congratulate this football team,” Beckman said. “Win or lose, he’s on that sidelines when we come in.”
Thomas, though, has taken a pass on every opportunity since an early-October loss to Purdue to speak publicly about his coach’s job status. Despite repeated attempts to engage Thomas on the topic, he hasn’t felt like sharing — let alone given Beckman anything resembling a vote of confidence.
Thomas merely has communicated (if one could call it that) through an athletic department spokesman. A sampling of his statements to the Sun-Times:
On Oct. 7: “For now, Mike doesn’t intend to do any media regarding the subject. Nothing has changed from where he always stands.”
On Oct. 20: “We respectively decline the opportunity. … Mike won’t discuss hypotheticals or the status of our current coaching staff.”
On Oct. 28: “Mike has indicated he won’t discuss hypothetical situations about the football program and won’t evaluate until the season is over. He said he is supporting the student-athletes, coaches and staff as much as possible to help garner as much success as possible.”
And on Nov. 4: “There is no change. He won’t be saying anything until the season is over.”
Some might read into all of that an absence of confidence on Thomas’ part, but it’s not much to go on. The fan base pretty clearly is disengaged, yet the coach remains positive and the A.D. remains mum.