The seemingly never-ending push to unseat the SEC from its college football throne had a big weekend. Three members from the conference got bounced from the national polls after losing, another exited the top 10 after narrowly escaping a colossal collapse at home against an FCS opponent and its chief proponents were set back on their heels, placed in the same kind of position of ranting in nonsensical fashion that its many detractors usually are.
Perhaps the biggest upside was seeing loudmouth head coach Bret Bielema, recently anointed the Donald Trump of the sport, watch his Arkansas Razorbacks go down in flames to, cough, cough, Toledo, just days after he mocked the schedule facing the reigning national champion, Ohio State.
The biggest negative? Fellow blowhard Bob Stoops getting yet another forum to promote himself and his underachieving program thanks to a road win at overrated Tennessee.
Thing is, thus far in 2015, it ain’t all about the knowns. Take, for instance … Illinois.
While I’ve focused much of my attention on one alma mater’s early-season success, its program-altering win against its in-state Big Brother and its program-shaping win a week later at the conference favorite, the other one has been left in the lurch a little bit too much. I mean, really, if any of the typical “have-nots” has stepped up in extraordinary and unlikely fashion it is Illinois.
Think about it. The Illini drop-kicked coach Tim Beckman a week before the season opener, following a pretty turbulent three-year run that actually seemed to show the program becoming more close-knit through losses and allegations of abuse. Beckman, clearly, didn’t have the hearts of everyone in the locker room, administration or fan base, but those he did had become extremely loyal. Then he was gone … with 2015 looming.
Enter Bill Cubit. The former head coach at Division III Widener and MAC middling Western Michigan, he had been hired as the Illini’s OC in 2013, and, belief in his play-to-play calling of a game or not, there was no denying the overall numbers he achieved. Rapidly. Illinois went from dead-dog offense to one that could be quite entertaining and, at times, competitive in the Big Ten.
But he was placed in a bizarre situation, and, thus far, the team has flourished. Granted, even if Beckman were still at the helm, the Illini likely would be 2-0 after games against Kent State and Western Michigan and looking to go 4-0 before the conference slate started in October. But dominating the opposition, any opposition, by a 96-3 margin, as they have under Cubit, no.
Should they come away from North Carolina with another impressive victory, don’t be surprised if Cubit gets the “interim” taken away from his title.
Keep in mind, he isn’t exactly dealing with a talent-less roster. Despite its recent struggles, Illinois was improving under Beckman – in the won-loss column and in talent level. That much is obvious by the players he recruited contributing in such big ways. DL Jihad Ward, WR Geronimo Allison and QB Wes Lunt, these are NFL-caliber players who were brought in during his regime.
Still, having the players on the roster is one thing, and having them on board with moving forward after the late-summer bombshell is something else altogether.
Cubit has done a masterful job of connecting with his players, probably because he made himself available to them from the moment he arrived on campus. Saying his door is always open may be too general to describe the situation, but Cubit has made this an empowering exercise for the players and, frankly, the fans, few they may be, who support them. The “new” coach actually has engaged the Illini community as a salesman, not with just pitching the program, but handling ticket purchases as well.
It’s tacky … and it’s tremendous – because he’s making Illini football a community effort, welcoming those who want to join with open arms and not closing things off with an “us against the world” mentality.
Up to now, that approach has worked. But beating North Carolina, a major step up in competition, would be the real payoff.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org