As Illinois explores other options, interim coach Bill Cubit waits and hopes

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Bill Cubit is still waiting for Illinois to shed light on his future at the school. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Bill Cubit was still feeling it — all of it — on Sunday.

Pain, after Illinois’ hard-to-swallow defeat the day before at Minnesota. Concern for his endlessly banged-up team, which now needs to beat 9-2 Northwestern at Soldier Field in Saturday’s regular-season finale to get to 6-6 and become bowl-eligible. And, yeah, maybe a twinge or two of anxiety about that other thing.

You know, the whole livelihood thing.

Does Cubit, 62, still have the chance to shed the “interim” from his title and become the Illini’s full-fledged coach? Is he essentially already fired regardless of what happens against Northwestern? Is this a beginning or an end in Champaign for Cubit, his staff and their families?

“I just don’t know. Nothing has been said to me,” Cubit told the Sun-Times. “There’s a lot of people who have reached out in support, but not the decision-makers.”

Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk hasn’t spelled things out for Cubit, perhaps because he has yet to arrive at a verdict. Kowalczyk told the Sun-Times on Sunday that Cubit still has a shot at the job. At the same time, he confirmed that the foundation for a coaching search has been laid.

“You’ve got to have contingency plans,” Kowalczyk said. “You’ve got to be thinking about all the alternatives out there. … Timing is extremely important when you enter into the marketplace.”

A dozen FBS jobs, including Illinois’, are open now, and there could be 20 or more openings by early December. The competition for coaches will be fierce.

“I’m not too concerned about that,” Kowalczyk said. “If we go outside, there’ll be a lot of interest. We’ve been getting contacted already. There are people already interested in the job, and I think some very qualified people.”

Does a school that employed Tim Beckman as head coach have the first clue who’s qualified and who isn’t? Kowalczyk wasn’t at Illinois when Beckman was hired. That can only be a good thing.

But keeping Cubit would be easy. It would be safe. He’s well-liked by players. He’s a pedal-to-the-metal offensive guy, which is appealing to recruits. Unlike Beckman, who was a public-relations train wreck, Cubit looks, sounds and feels like a leader of a program.

“Bill clearly consumes that space well,” Kowalczyk said.

Keeping Cubit might really pay off, too. He looks at what Northwestern has pulled off this season — after back-to-back 5-7 campaigns — and believes such success is within reach for the Illini in 2016. You know what? It’s not all that far-fetched. If healthy, next year’s team could surprise a lot of people.

Cubit hopes he’s around to see it through. He knows he might not be.

“That’s the bad thing about coaching,” he said. “But I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve never not been without a job.”

Cubit has no intention of hanging up his whistle if the Illinois gig doesn’t work out. He believes he has far more to offer a school than he did a decade ago when he took the head job at Western Michigan.

“I feel better now physically than I did 10 years ago,” he said. “I’ve taken better care of myself. Experience really helps. I’ve learned how to work smarter.”

Does Illinois believe that? Does it even matter at this point? Might a victory over the Wildcats at Soldier Field change everything?

Cubit just doesn’t know. Truth is, he’s kind of dying to find out.

WHO’S IN THIS WEEK?

My best guess at how the College Football Playoff committee will call it when the new rankings come out on Tuesday:

1. Clemson (11-0): This is pretty much a lock.

2. Alabama (10-1): So is this. The Tide aren’t about to move up after playing Charleston Southern.

3. Iowa (11-0): Hawkeyes fans know a top-four ranking is coming, but they’re still going to fall over with delight when they see it become official.

4. Notre Dame (10-1): The banged-up Irish hang on — by a thread — to a top-four spot. They need to beat Stanford on Saturday and root like maniacs for Oklahoma State to beat Oklahoma.

HEISMAN WATCH

My top five, in order, if I were voting today: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama; Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson; Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma; Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford; Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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