Big Ten

Illini have sights on 'stability' after Cubit's surprising dismissal


Illini have sights on 'stability' after Cubit's surprising dismissal

CHAMPAIGN — Stability.

It was a word that was strange to see in an announcement that Illinois’ head football coach was being dismissed.

On his first day on the job, new athletics director Josh Whitman ended the short tenure of Bill Cubit as the head coach of the Fighting Illini and in doing so touted the stability the move would bring.

Stability is something that’s been in short order in Champaign, particularly within the football program. Tim Beckman was fired a week before the 2015 season began, throwing the team into complete disarray. Cubit held things together and led the Illini to a 5-7 season, but his future was always in doubt with just a two-year contract and now he’s gone, too. When Whitman announces the next head coach, he’ll be introducing Illinois’ third football coach since August.

That’s not exactly stability.

But Whitman is looking at the big picture. And he said that Saturday’s decision to again upset Illinois football’s apple cart was the first step in bringing long-term stability to the program, that the next head coach will be the guy who settles everything down, fixes the problems and starts winning.

[MORE BIG TEN: Reports: Ex-Bears coach Lovie Smith could be new Illini head coach]

That’s a tall task, but Whitman is confident that creating short-term instability with the dismissal of Cubit will yield long-term stability in the hiring of a new coach.

“It allows us to go off and hire someone who’s going to be around here for a long time,” Whitman said. “We all understand the contractual challenges that Bill had put that in some question. And the new head coach, I feel fairly confident in saying, will not be on a two-year contract. And so we’ll be in a position to go out and bring somebody in here who can return a level of long-term vision to the program.”

While Saturday’s move was indeed shocking, it can’t come as the biggest imaginable surprise for an athletics department that has experienced what Illinois has experienced since last spring. Allegations of student-athlete mistreatment from former members of multiple Illinois athletics teams rocked the department, with the ones against Beckman found to be true by an independent investigation, resulting in his firing. When further details from that investigation emerged, athletics director Mike Thomas was the next to go. Then came the haphazard, months long search that ended in Whitman’s hiring.

Whitman seems to be a stabilizing force with a grand vision for his alma mater. But he needs to find a head football coach that can make a similarly strong impression.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

Whitman recognizes what Cubit’s dismissal in the beginning of March — hardly the normal time to be searching for a new leader of a program — looks like: the latest disaster for a department that continues to spiral out of control. But he sees it differently. He’s not looking at this as another screw-up. He sees it as the necessary step to bring about a new beginning.

“As I told our team today, for some people this might feel like another body blow in a series of body blows, that we’ve had our challenges. I see it very differently, I see this as the first step toward what we ultimately want to build,” Whitman said. “And as most things are, this is a question of perspective. And this is the first very positive step toward developing that championship culture, that championship program that I know all of our fans and all of us hope to expect to see. So I think this is a very positive development in the history of our football program. And I understand how some people might not view it that way, but obviously if we didn’t think that this was in the best interest of University of Illinois football, we wouldn’t do it.”

The new football coach could be announced soon. Whitman, as expected, didn’t talk about candidates or lay down a hard and fast timeline. But when asked how quickly a hire could come, he talked about dealing with the university’s human resources department, making it seem like he had someone ready to go, even if he wouldn’t say it directly.

“We have a plan,” Whitman said. “And as you would imagine, the timing of this is what I would call a little bit non-traditional. We understand that. I hope that you would all be disappointed in me if we didn’t have some idea of the direction we hope to take this thing. What we don’t know — we have to work through our university process, the things that we need to work through from the university standpoint. But we’re hopeful to be able to bring this to a conclusion as quickly as we can.”

Reports already surfaced — some as early as during Whitman’s Saturday press conference — that former Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is expected to be Cubit’s successor. So things could be wrapped up quite quickly indeed.

But regardless of who it is or when it happens, Illinois’ next football hire will be done with one thing clearly in mind: bringing stability to a program that’s been in constant turmoil for months.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?