In the Wake of the News
8:36 PM CDT, July 25, 2013
No mention of Wayne Bylsma appears on the Illinois football roster or any list of potential Illini recruits.
But when coach Tim Beckman regularly reads the name of the linebacker on his computer screen, it reinforces what Beckman believes he does well at Illinois despite last year's dismal 2-10 record. The weekly notes from Bylsma constantly remind the embattled Illini coach why he got into a business that too often measures men simply by wins and losses.
The rapport Beckman developed with Bylsma came as a graduate-assistant at Auburn — 25 years ago.
"Usually he sends a funny joke but we keep in touch,'' Beckman said of Bylsma before the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon on Thursday. "The relationships we build with our players are for a lifetime, not just four years. That's why I coach.''
Technically, Beckman coaches for $1.8 million a season but the gregarious 48-year-old sounded as if he would do it for free recalling a phone call from former Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in 2008. Jenkins had just been named the winner of the Thorpe Award honoring the nation's best defensive back and called Beckman, who coached Jenkins at OSU before moving on to Oklahoma State.
"He wanted to talk to my wife, and she started crying before handing the phone back,'' Beckman said. "I said, 'Malcolm, did something happen?' We hadn't been with him for two years but he was so touched we were such a big part of his life he invited us to the award dinner. …To me, that's what football is about.''
To Beckman, one of the few highlights last season didn't come on a Saturday but one Tuesday after practice. Two Illini players approached Beckman to say thanks for requiring everybody to fill out a "goals and dreams" chart. As a result, both young men fulfilled their goal of being baptized the previous Sunday.
"They said they wouldn't have done it if they hadn't thought about it and written it down,'' Beckman said.
Is a college football coach overly idealistic if he sees a connection between changing lives and winning games as tightly as Beckman does?
"The majority of coaches I worked for who have been successful believe they can be more than just a coach,'' Beckman said. "We get to deal with 18-year-olds, some from single-parent homes. I don't feel it's idealistic. We're in this profession to make our players better people.''
Noble intentions notwithstanding, Beckman knows he needs to be a better coach on Saturdays in order to keep making a difference for players the rest of the week. As a Big Ten head coach, so far Beckman is a terrific guy.
Beckman's first season began badly when he violated protocol by recruiting Penn State players as the scandal broke and only got worse. It included embarrassing episodes such as Beckman chewing tobacco on the sideline and colliding with a referee. Even more indicting for Beckman than the scoreboard, videotape of fourth-quarter losses showed Illini players quitting.
"That probably was the biggest thing that hurt,'' Beckman said.
Hope took last autumn off in Champaign. The situation deteriorated so badly that a college football source confirmed Illinois quietly inquired about potential coaching candidates during Beckman's postseason evaluation. Criticism mounted that tested the resolve of Beckman and his three children.
"The hardest thing about my job is I do take things personally and I want our players to be successful,'' Beckman said. "If they're not on or off the field, I take it as a father would take it.''
In fairness, former coach Ron Zook left a second-division roster decimated by attrition caused by off-the-field problems that caused a talent deficit Beckman described Thursday as "inexcusable.'' Not surprisingly, Beckman was as hard on himself as he was on Zook.
"At times I didn't handle adversity as well as I should have,'' Beckman said. "I probably tried to overdo some things. The biggest thing is how do you handle those things and think of ways to inspire your football team.''
Beckman responded with a detailed plan in December for the next eight months, structure that surely helped 51 Illinois players achieve at least a 3.0 grade-point average. He recruited a respectable class that included dual-threat quarterback Aaron Bailey and added Oklahoma State quarterback transfer Wes Lunt, who started as a freshman. He hired proven offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. He decided to take over coaching cornerbacks himself, "like coach (Nick) Saban does.''
He challenged his players to have as much faith in his program as he does in them.
"You know how much Coach Beckman has bled and sweat for this opportunity,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "So you don't want to let him down.''
For a coach who might only ever lead the Big Ten in earnestness, the feeling is mutual.
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