CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois athletics department is going to wait until the season ends to make a decision on Bill Cubit’s future and the future of the football team’s head-coaching position.
Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson and interim athletics director Paul Kowalcyzk had no answers for reporters on what the future holds for the school’s most-visible position when they announced the removal of Mike Thomas from the athletics director job earlier this week.
But ask the team itself, and the time for a decision on the football coach might be now.
“I think it’s time to pop the interim tag off,” offensive lineman Teddy Karras said after Saturday’s 28-3 loss to Ohio State. “I think that should be Kowalczyk’s first business decision. (Cubit’s) our leader. He’s led us to 5-5 going into the last two games. It would’ve been nice to get this one and kind of force the hand to pop it off. But who are we really waiting for with all the coaching opportunities that are open this year. I think Bill’s the guy and he should be solidified here soon.”
Strong words from one of the team’s leaders, a guy who’s started a lot of games and played a lot football for the orange and blue.
And he’s got a point. Few would’ve been able to do what Cubit has done, taking over for the fired Tim Beckman a week before the start of the season. The win total isn’t terribly impressive, and he needs to win once in the team’s final two games — against Minnesota and Northwestern — to reach bowl eligibility.
But Cubit’s achievements aren’t easily measured by the team’s record. He’s provided stability while also injecting a new attitude into the program. His positivity at press conferences has been commended by observers, and he’s worked hard to get the community to support a team that hasn’t been easy to get excited about in recent seasons.
Plus, his passion is beyond evident. He’s become emotional on numerous occasions when discussing his players and the opportunity to coach this team. He wants his bosses, as interim as they might be, to know that it’s going to be tough to find someone else like him.
“I think they see the passion from me, and then it’s up to other people to figure out (whether he deserves to stay). Do I think I’m the guy? There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Cubit said Saturday. “And I know these kids got my back, and I’ve got their back.
“They know what they want. I know what I want. I think everybody out there, if they can’t see it, there’s not much I can do. What they’re going to get, they’re going to get 100-percent effort from me. I think right now we’re probably a breath of fresh air around here with everything that’s going on. They come out there and see a bunch of kids fighting their butts off for the Illini. And that’s how I’m going to do it, too.
“I’m giving it everything I got. I don’t think they’re going to find another guy that loves this place like me.”
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Cubit’s resume is certainly as good as any other candidate’s would be. He coached Western Michigan for eight seasons before taking over as the Illini’s offensive coordinator ahead of the 2013 season. He did a great job in his first season, working with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to turn an ineffective unit into one of the Big Ten’s most explosive.
And the passion and positivity has been contagious. Cubit’s players notice it. They praised his attitude, even in the wake of a four-score defeat.
“You want to play for coach Cubit, you don’t want to let him down,” Karras said. “I feel like we let him down today. Every time, if we go three and out or don’t put up a bunch of points like we did today, you feel like you let Bill down a little bit. And he’s the guy we play for. He’s our leader, and we rally around him.”
“He brings a different thing to it. He’s an old-school guy, and I think that’s just something different. He really is a player’s coach,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “He gives us a lot of say, which is huge to a player, when you know you have your coach’s trust and he thinks you’re responsible enough to make the right decisions. Having coach Cubit and this whole staff here has been a blessing after all we’ve been through.”
Even if 2015 hasn’t been a resounding success — and certainly no one is jumping for joy over a .500 record — Cubit believes the progress is evident. Under the circumstances of Beckman’s firing, perhaps five wins wouldn’t have been expected in the preseason. Additionally, the Illini have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries, dating back to a rash of season-enders before the campaign even started.
Cubit argued that with his team at full strength, with a year of his leadership under its belt, Illinois could be a very different squad next season.
“You get a lot of kids back,” Cubit said. “Could I have gotten some of those guys back? Probably, but it’s not right. Those kids deserve a full season.
“And then you get a little bit more comfortable with some things, my style. You’re talking about a style that came in here (and has only been going for) 10 weeks. That’s all it’s been. All the things they were going through for three years, four years, it changed because I’m doing what I think is more comfortable on my end.
“I think you can see the fruits of what’s happening with these kids, they’re buying in. If we can move this far in 10 weeks, how far can we go when we get some more guys coming back and everybody’s comfortable with what we’re doing? To me, pretty good.”
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We’ll have to wait to find out Cubit’s fate. It’s unknown if Kowalczyk will even be the one making the decision. There’s an opening at athletics director, too, and if that’s filled swiftly, perhaps that new person will be making the call on whether to keep Cubit or whether to bring in someone new.
Certainly there are good arguments to be made for a fresh start with someone different. It would wipe away the entirety of the Beckman Era, one that ended in ugly fashion with an investigation uncovering all sorts of wrongdoing relating to treatment of players.
But Cubit has done a remarkable job holding things together and leading a team through a unique situation that could’ve caused the program to crater this season.
Instead, there’s fight and positivity, two words that might as well be at the top of Cubit’s job application.
“If you don’t see the passion in these kids, somebody’s blind,” Cubit said. “These kids are playing their butts off and against a lot of odds. It’s up to the coaching staff every time to come up here and be positive, it’s up to them. And they look to the leader. If I’m negative, they’re negative.
“I’m not being negative.”