If anyone could use a rally right now, it’s the Illinois football program.
The Illini saw their head coach fired Friday, a week before the start of the 2015 season.
For a program already battling negative attitudes after winning just 12 games in three seasons under Tim Beckman, the news that Beckman deterred injury reporting, tried to influence medical diagnoses, pressured players to play injured and inappropriately handled players’ scholarship situations wasn't exactly the straw that broke the camel's back — more like a cartoonishly large anvil.
But no matter what the perception of the program is — and it’s bad, with many calling it an all-time low and wondering why athletics director Mike Thomas still has his job — there’s still football to be played.
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Bill Cubit, the offensive coordinator pressed into interim head-coaching duty, is hoping his players can play that football in an atmosphere that is the antithesis to whatever current feelings surrounding Illinois football are.
“My hope is that the students, the alumni, the parents, everybody out there rally around this football team because these kids deserve everything they can get. And when you rally — I remember the Minnesota game (last season), that crowd got pretty loud — it just pushes you over the edge. If we all want to have a really good football program here, everybody’s got to pitch in.
“I know there’s some dissatisfaction here and there, but just keep rooting. Be loud, proud and just keep on going. And I think that’s our message, really, for the Illini family, and if we can get that thing done, we’ve got that extra edge. Because the home field should be the edge for us.”
A silver lining to this dismal turn of events in Champaign is that Cubit is perhaps better suited to take over at the drop of a hat than most, thanks to the stability he provides the players and the head-coaching experience he logged in eight seasons at Western Michigan.
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It might not be the way he envisioned it going, but Cubit is now the head coach of a Power 5 program, the highest level for college coaches. He choked up when asked what his emotions were Monday, remembering his mother, who recently passed away. At the very least, his comments in recent days, the toughest of days for a football program, have illustrated his passion and dedication to the Illinois team and the players who wear the orange and blue.
“My deal is I love kids, I love the guys on this football team. And somebody bestowed on me the honor of being the head coach at the University of Illinois. Can you ask for anything more?” Cubit said. “And then to see the reaction I got from a lot of the country, a lot of alumni. ‘Hey coach, we’re all in your corner, let’s go.’ And you have defensive guys come up to you, ‘Coach, I’ve got your back. Don’t worry about it.’ I think that’s pretty neat. Especially a guy at my age being able to do something like this. You’re going to see a passionate, hard-working (coach), and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. That’s the way we’re going to approach this thing.”
Cubit is representing a program in turmoil with a positive face, something he should certainly be commended for, but certainly the challenges are many. The sheer reality of losing a head coach a week away from the season-opener is still pretty stunning, even after a few days to digest it. Cubit takes over on the fly, and he said he hasn’t slept much and he’s barely had time to eat a sandwich.
Then there’s the challenge that would have existed had Beckman been fired or not. The Illini play a rigorous Big Ten schedule, with games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern. A loss to Purdue last season showed no conference game is a sure thing.
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With a team that’s boasted one of the country’s worst defenses, statistically, in the past two seasons and a roster full of injured players, winning won’t be easy.
Though that’s what Cubit promised would happen Monday, hoping to establish an attitude fans and alumni could be proud of that would go along with the wins.
“I think we’re all trying to get a classy program that’s going to go out there and play hard, give everything they've got and represent this university the way it should be,” Cubit said. “We’ve got some tough times, but I want us to be the rallying cry for this campus right now. I’d love to see over 60,000 people in those stands just going nuts about their Illini football team because they respect them, what they’re doing on the field, off the field, socially, academically, how you’re handling (things) on the field, playing hard, representing this university with class. That’s what I’m gunning for for these kids, and I think that’s what we’ll get.
“That is an unbelievable group of young men that we have representing ourselves. And now, I understand, we’ve got to out and win. We’ll do that.”