After the Tim Beckman Era crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, would Illinois really go back to the MAC?
Let’s back up. Beckman was fired Friday after initial findings in an investigation into the football program found the now-former Illini head football coach deterred injury reporting, influenced medical decisions, pressured players to play hurt and treated players inappropriately in respect to their scholarship status.
And while the qualified Bill Cubit is taking over as interim head coach, there will be a search for a long-term head coach starting up formally in a few months, according to athletics director Mike Thomas.
So with Beckman ousted, who are some of possible names that could take over, long-term, as the next head football coach at Illinois? It’s all speculation right now, but with Thomas refusing to talk about his thinking publicly, speculation is the best we’ve got.
Here are some possibilities.
[MORE BIG TEN: Mistreatment of players, not record, did in Illini's Beckman]
Bill Cubit, Illinois interim head coach
You’ve got to start with Cubit, who is as good a last-minute replacement for Beckman — fired a week before the start of the 2015 season — as there could be. Cubit will provide stability for the players currently prepping for the season-opener against Kent State, making sure business continues as normal from a football perspective.
Cubit has done good things in two seasons as the offensive coordinator, turning things around in his first year with help from fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Last season, an injury to starter Wes Lunt did the Illini offense in early on. But if Lunt can blossom into what many think he’s capable of becoming this season under Cubit’s leadership, that’ll be a huge plus for Cubit, who said Friday he’s interested in sticking around long-term.
Cubit also has eight years of prior FBS head-coaching experience, taking Western Michigan to three bowl games in his octet of seasons helming the Broncos.
[MORE BIG TEN: Tim Beckman saga shows importance of student-athlete voice]
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach
Speaking of Western Michigan, Fleck is at the top of many speculative lists of future Power 5 conference head-coaching gigs. But Illinois is a particularly good fit for the 34-year-old rising star of a coach. Fleck is from Sugar Grove, a Kaneland High School product and a Northern Illinois alum. A local guy, he knows the Land of Lincoln, and he’s moderately familiar with the Big Ten, too, starting his coaching career as a grad assistant at Ohio State before returning to Northern, where he assisted current Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. He also spent two seasons coaching wide receivers at Rutgers prior to the Scarlet Knights joining the Big Ten.
He’s entering his third season at the helm of the Western Michigan program, taking the Broncos from 1-11 in 2013 to an 8-5 finish and bowl appearance last season.
Fleck’s youth and general reputation in the state and around the country could provide the Illini with the energy boost they so desperately need and could aid recruiting efforts, particularly in state, as well.
[MORE BIG TEN: Tim Beckman denies mistreatment in defiant post-firing statement]
Brock Spack, Illinois State head coach
Spack gained plenty of attention last season when he took the Redbirds to the FCS national championship game. In six seasons as the Redbirds’ head coach, he’s posted a 46-26 record, establishing Illinois State as one of the FCS’ better programs. Obviously, he has local ties that could boost in-state recruiting efforts, and he’s extremely familiar with the Big Ten, serving as the Purdue defensive coordinator for 12 seasons from 1997 to 2008 before he took over Illinois State.
FCS head coaches making the jump to a Power 5 program isn’t the most common thing, and obviously such a move would come with a good deal of risk. While Spack has had great success at Illinois State, there’s a pretty gigantic difference between the Missouri Valley and the Big Ten. That being said, Spack brings a lot of positives and would likely be a good hire.
[MORE BIG TEN: Behind Bill Cubit, Illini still have a football season to play]
Dino Babers, Bowling Green head coach
Babers is another rising star in the MAC, and he also has some local ties. Babers went 19-7 in two seasons as the head coach at Eastern Illinois before taking over at Bowling Green. In his first year helming the Falcons last season, he finished with an 8-6 record and beat South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl. Babers served many years as an assistant for various teams before going to Eastern Illinois. His most notable stint came as an assistant at Baylor from 2008 to 2011.
Dipping into the lower levels of college football is the likely route for the Illini, as consistent losing and recent turmoil has made Illinois one of the more undesirable programs to front in the Power 5. Of course, there are positives, such as football facilities and Big Ten exposure while playing in the conference's weaker and more winnable division. It’s not like no one would want the gig. But speculation about top-of-the-line coordinators, such as Oregon’s Scott Frost, leaving for Champaign seems unrealistic.
Beckman came out of the MAC, surely a reason to be wary of going back into that pool for his successor. While Beckman’s legacy is now one of player abuse, there was plenty of losing that accompanied that, too. Purdue’s Darrell Hazell also came to the Big Ten from the MAC and is doing a great deal of losing, as well, something continuing to make that route one to take with caution. But Urban Meyer coached in the MAC at one point, so successful coaches can most certainly come from that conference.
But don’t expect big names to be drawn to Illinois like moths to a flame. Names speculated about such as Frost, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and even former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel seem to be various degrees of outlandish. Maybe a rising Big Ten coordinator like Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash or even Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda could be more plausible options and good ones, at that.
But looking to the MAC — or the FCS in the case of Spack — might be the most realistic option, and there are good candidates there, too. The Illinois coaching search won’t even start in earnest for some time, and the wait for a hire will be even longer. For now, though, let the speculation run wild.