Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Illini trying to move past offseason of allegations

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Big Ten preview: Illini trying to move past offseason of allegations

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Will experience lead to success for Illini defense?]

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."

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?]

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Does Wes Lunt still have something to prove for Illini?]

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.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.