The Illini made a ton of headlines this offseason and not in the way they wanted to.
Former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic dropped a Mother’s Day bombshell when he took to Twitter and sent out dozens and eventually hundreds of tweets accusing head coach Tim Beckman of being an abusive bully who forces players to play hurt, demonizes injured players and threatens to take players’ scholarships away.
Teamed with other problematic allegations in different programs — most notably a group of former women’s basketball players alleging an environment of racial hostility, accusations an independent review found unsupported — the Illinois athletics department has had a microscope on it all summer.
And with the independent investigation into the football program still ongoing, summer camp starts with a lot of uncertainty involving how that will play out. It also means the coaches and players have to get back to football while a cloud lingers.
Of course, getting back to football is always what coaches and players want to do, and at Big Ten Media Days last month, there was excitement that the focus would be on the field rather than off it.
“It’s all part of the job: answering tough questions and talking about things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with football," running back Josh Ferguson said. "But it’s something we understand, being an older guy I understand that. But yeah, you want to actually get out there and play football.”
While Cvijanovic’s claims were serious, they weren’t backed by many. Only a handful of Beckman’s former players from Illinois and Toledo voiced their experiences of mistreatment, while a large majority also took to social media to defend their coach, their program and their experiences. The defense of Beckman by current and former Illini was greater in number than the allegations against him. But they didn’t draw the same amount of attention.
"I think we did a good job tweeting our opinions and experiences," offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. "I can’t speak for anybody else but myself. I’m going to share my experience to show that this isn’t the case here at the University of Illinois.
“Social media is dangerous in all organizations, I guess, if people are using it the wrong way. It can be a voice for people who feel disgruntled, it can be a voice for people who feel great."
Getting back to practice and eventually back to games will change the discussion topics in some ways, but much like the Northwestern unionization conversation took forever to go away up in Evanston — despite players not wanting to talk about it — there’s little chance this story will be disappearing from Champaign any time soon.
“I’m sure it’ll still pop up. I don’t have any illusions that this is going to go away," Karras said. "Hopefully it does. We’ll win some ballgames, and it’ll go away. That’s how I’m thinking about it.”
But similarly to that situation with last year’s Northwestern team, it seems the team itself will have no problem getting past what happened this offseason surrounding the Illini. So will it affect the play on the field? From the outside looking in, it sure doesn’t seem like it.
In fact, as the unionization situation did with last season's Wildcats, this potentially divisive issue has actually brought the team closer together.
“It wasn’t the only catalyst for that," Karras said. "I think we have great leadership, and we really do like each other, we love each other. We’re around each other all the time. It was a rallying point as far as someone’s kind of attacking us, and we’ve got to rally around each other and share our positive experiences so that someone doesn’t do harm to the program. That’s how kind of we saw it. It’s definitely brought us closer.”
Now it’s possible that the unresolved investigation will be resolved at any point. That could mean the results are announced during August practices. That could mean the results are announced in the middle of the season. And if and when that situation occurs, distractions will again pop up. How big the distraction depends on the investigation’s findings, and it’s possible a giant, irremovable wrench could be thrown into the Illini’s 2015 campaign.
But for now, while the findings are still to be determined, this team is just out to play football. How well the Illini do that remains to be seen, but they’ll be doing it free of talk of these allegations. For now.