For the first time in months, Illinois knows its future.
How long that future will last, though, remains to be seen.
The Illini announced Saturday morning that Bill Cubit would lose the interim label he’s had all season and become the team’s permanent head football coach for the next two seasons.
Of course, the fact that Cubit received just a two-year deal makes any observer wonder just how permanent this hire will be. It’s odd for a college football coach to receive such a short contract, as it’s difficult to recruit when you can’t guarantee prospective student-athletes that you’ll be around for their entire collegiate career. It’s hard to win football games when you can’t bring in recruits. And that means Cubit — through no fault of his own — could be in another state of mystery surrounding his job security not too long from right now.
That’s not bothering Cubit, though, at least not publicly. After he ended his first season as the Illinois coach with a 24-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Soldier Field, he expressed his excitement about the challenge ahead and his happiness to still be coaching these players, who gave him a standing ovation when told he'll be coming back as the man in charge.
“To me, they asked. And I told them many times, I love these kids, it’s all about them. And when it was presented to me, the bottom line was I asked myself, ‘Why do you coach?’ And I coach because I love being around players like this,” Cubit said. “For me, it’s a challenge, I know it’s a big challenge. But I’m looking forward to it.”
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Keeping Cubit on was a controversial-enough decision. The Illini didn’t play well against quality competition this season, and the four FBS teams they beat finished with a combined 17-31 record. The offense — Cubit’s area of expertise — was especially ineffective almost the entire season. Chalk it up to a rash of injuries on that side of the ball, sure, but poor play was just as prevalent.
Giving Cubit just a two-year deal, though, shows a particularly ridiculous level of indecision.
Paul Kowalczyk, the interim athletics director who was a part of extending Cubit for just two years, said as much Saturday. After it was reported earlier in the week that a Cubit extension could be the result of an unorganized and time-crunched search for a permanent athletics director, Kowalczyk flat-out said that a two-year deal was decided upon so whoever the new AD is can make his or her own decision about Cubit in the near future.
“Obviously the university’s in a situation with interim tags on a lot of different people. The feeling is that it’d be best for a permanent AD to make a decision that they can live with, somebody of their choosing, whether it be Bill or somebody else,” Kowalczyk told reporters at Soldier Field. “So that position right now is important to fill. So now it’s, OK, this will get us to where we need to be in order to make that decision.
“Obviously it’s not ideal. But for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program. The program’s too strong, Bill’s recruiting, there’s not going to be a stoppage in what he’s doing, what he’s trying to accomplish, so we’ll just try to keep things moving in a positive direction.”
When an athletics director announces the appointment of a new head coach and says “it’s not ideal,” that’s not ideal, to say the least. Illinois couldn't put itself in a position to find a new athletics director in time to make the appropriate call on Cubit. So the people in charge bumped the decision down the road, leaving Cubit with practically zero long-term security in the process.
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There are plenty of positives about Cubit, of course, and he truly has earned a shot at the full-time gig. Cubit kept the team and the program together after Tim Beckman was fired a week before the start of the season, something that could have caused everything to fall to pieces. Instead, Cubit led the Illini a win away from a bowl appearance in a competitive Big Ten.
Cubit brings plenty of head-coaching experience to the job, having coached at Western Michigan for eight seasons. That’s certainly as much experience as and actually far more than most prospective candidates from outside the program would have brought.
He’s also been a terrific face of the program in times of turmoil, bringing a positive attitude, getting emotional when talking about his players and working hard to rally the community around a team that hasn’t been the easiest to support in recent seasons.
So is a two-year contract ideal? No. But Cubit, as he has throughout this season, is looking on the bright side.
“Compared to what I was thrown into (earlier this year), it gives you a lot more time,” he said. “When you go in a week before the season, there’s some things you can change in terms of practice, organization, stuff like that. And then there’s a lot of other things you can’t, so it gives you an opportunity to put your stamp on the program. It’ll be nice when you look at all the kids working back (from injury), we held them out for redshirts and we really did it for them. Now, to be honest with you, it’s going to be beneficial for us when we get those guys back. I think it’s really optimistic.”
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Cubit’s best attribute is likely the stability he brings. While Illinois will welcome in a new recruiting class next season, it will have three or four still remaining who played under Beckman. Cubit, having spent two seasons as Beckman’s offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach, provides more of the same — in a good way — for these players, who won't be thrown into a transition they want no part of.
“It brings stability, and I think that’s important in college football, just with recruiting and really getting to know your players and being a player’s coach. And I think that’s what coach Cubit is,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “Just having a head man like him and to know what his expectations are is good looking to the future.”
“I feel really happy for the juniors that are going to be seniors next year,” offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. “A coaching change is kind of a freak-show time. No one’s spot is there. Guys don’t really like each other sometimes because you’re fighting to get a spot. I’m just really glad for Bill.”
Cubit’s situation is not ideal. Illinois’ situation is not ideal. And certainly a 5-7 record and another underwhelming season is not ideal. But regardless of how he got to this point — and it seems it was because the school just couldn't get done what it needed to get done in time — Cubit deserves this chance.
Cubit is going to be Illinois' head football coach next season. After that, though, who knows?
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ll start tomorrow. I’ll be in the office at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning," Cubit said. "They entrust me with this title. I’m going to go out there, and I’m going hard. I really am. So you could take two, three, five (years). It don’t make a bit of difference because in this day in age, you better start winning quick.”