Illinois has had an interim head football coach for two and a half months whose future has been unknown.
It was only fitting that an interim chancellor and an interim athletics director had nothing to add on the long-term status of that job.
Illinois removed Mike Thomas from his position as athletics director on Monday morning, citing a need to change the leadership of the department and to move on from months of "distractions." Those distractions were accusations and then an investigation into former head football coach Tim Beckman, who was found to mistreat players by pressuring them to play injured, influencing injury reports, belittling them with public use of derogatory language, convincing them to end their scholarships and threatening to remove them from their scholarships.
Now Illinois has interim titles on its chancellor, athletics director and head football coach, and there don't seem to be any answers in how things will proceed.
“We’re not going to make any decisions till the end of the season,” interim AD Paul Kowalczyk said.
“I don’t know what you can get accomplished right now. Been through this drill before. You can get a football coach at the end of the season if that’s in fact the step we choose to take. So I don’t think there’s an issue there whatsoever with the timing of it. Generally speaking, you meet with the coach when the season’s over and make your decision. This year seems to be a bit of an anomaly with all these changes that have been going on during the season. ... This year’s been a little different, but that doesn’t mean we have to change to match what’s going on out there.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Illini remove Mike Thomas to put end to months of 'distractions']
Bill Cubit, the interim head football coach, has done an admirable job leading the Illini in the wake of Beckman's firing, which came a week before the season started. Cubit has the Illini one win away from bowl eligibility and seems to have his players playing more inspired than they appeared to play in three seasons under Beckman.
But will Cubit get that interim title taken away? Or will it be someone completely new at season's end?
“It’s a big decision, and Bill Cubit and his staff have done a fantastic job under difficult circumstances and I give them a lot of credit for what they’ve been able to accomplish,” Kowalczyk said. “Obviously we all want to be successful. He wants to know his fate more than anybody else in this room, and he deserves that. But it’s a tough decision, we have to to wait that out for right now.”
Cubit was a perfect choice to take over, the offensive coordinator providing stability after guiding the offense to success the past two seasons. He has plenty of prior head-coaching experience and has been visible in outreach efforts to rally the Illinois community around the team.
But this season hasn’t exactly been a rousing success, either. While that could have certainly be expected considering the circumstances, the Illini have played up-and-down football, generally good on the defensive side but finding little success on offense while battling a ton of injuries. There have been good performances against weak competition like Kent State, Western Illinois and Purdue, but there have also been listless ones against stronger teams such as North Carolina, Penn State and Wisconsin.
It’s hard to say whether Cubit has done enough to earn a more permanent position. Certainly there’s more to it than just wins and losses.
But after the Beckman stuff is finally put in the rearview mirror, it will again become about wins and losses. And with Thomas removed due to wanting to do just that, move on, you wonder if the university wants to sever all ties to the Beckman Era. Cubit and the current coaching staff were hired by Beckman.
There’s also the much-desired idea of simply getting a fresh start. Even without all the things surrounding Beckman’s tenure that didn’t have to do with wins and losses, a poor record seemed to have the Illini on a similar path toward making a coaching change and making it soon.
Illinois is a Big Ten program with a solid Chicago recruiting base. It should be attractive to coaches, especially those in lower conferences, where there are plenty of candidates that people have been talking about who are ready to jump to a Power 5 program.
But are the more attractive candidates going to be turned away by all the uncertainty at the top of the university and its athletics department?
“Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith,” Kowalczyk said. “But I think the most important part of that decision for the coach is we’ve got a great institution here with a tremendous body of work, tremendous history, tradition. To me, it should be a destination job. We’ve got professionals across the board at this university to help us support our programs, our student-athletes and our coaches. So to me, that’s a non-issue for a coach in that regard. They will get through that and know that they’ve got the full force of the university behind them.”
Whether it’s Cubit being rewarded for his impromptu fill-in job or a new coach to help the program make a new start, don’t expect to hear anything until December. These interim leaders don’t seem intent on doing anything until then.
“I have full confidence in his ability to move us forward,” interim chancellor Barbara J. Wilson said of Kowalczyk. “And we’re not making any decisions right now about the football coach. We wouldn’t do that until the end of the season.”