Hard as it may be to believe, but Illinois actually was 6-0 the first half of the season in 2011. The Illini may not have been exactly “rolling,” but they were winning. By the hair of their chinny chin chins usually. Then …
Fast forward four years, and for all the tomfoolery and shenanigans and bad play attributed to the Tim Beckman era that followed Ron Zook’s fateful final season, “Becks” never had the type of bottoming-out, future-is-dire, 0-6 stretch drive to rival that aforementioned campaign … but Bill Cubit sure did. In guiding a supposedly tormented bunch out of the blaze surrounding Beckman’s firing to a 5-7 record this season, Cubit somehow managed to parlay a good-story-gone-blah into an extension and “permanent” gig.
Not a bad deal if you can get it, huh?
That numbing sensation felt outside Soldier Field prior to Saturday’s Big Ten contest with Northwestern wasn’t so much due to the cold and wind, but, rather, the news that the Illini had taken the interim tag off Cubit’s title and given him another two years to leave his mark on the program.
The question is … why?
Well before falling for the sixth time in their last seven games, the Illini had shown all the earmarks of a Cubit squad. In other words, a lot of talk about offense and offensive strategy and offensive philosophy and offensive accountability, with little offensive production to match such talk.
His teams are not so much bad as they are boring, which is quite a feat considering his rep as this Xs and Os innovator. The plays they run are as predictable as they are ineffective.
Oddly, the Illini defense dramatically improved in Cubit’s first season at the helm … and that did nothing to help the Orange & Blue from taking a step back – yes, a step back and a big one at that – from “Becks.”
The former coach may have been flawed in many ways, but he had the program pointed in the right direction on the field.
Somehow, you kinda think he would’ve called for instant replay on Northwestern’s first touchdown on Saturday, too, when the Wildcats’ Dan Vitale clearly stepped out of bounds at the 4 before diving into the end zone.
Or that he would’ve pushed for points before halftime at North Carolina in a still-winnable game at that point instead of stating his guys were too tired to do so as Cubit had. Thing is, the argument here isn’t so much that Beckman had to stay. It’s just that Cubit had to go.
Illinois head coach Bill Cubit received a contract extension just hours before guiding the Illini to a sixth loss in their final seven regular-season games.
It’s a mistake. A big one.
By extending Bill Cubit another two years, and, thus, erasing the “interim” tag attached to his title as head coach, the makeshift University of Illinois administrators currently in charge of such things have effectively guaranteed that mediocrity will not depart the Fighting Illini football program any time soon.
Let’s make a few things clear. Cubit is a likable human being. He can be an engaging individual whose folksy, old-school coachspeak peppered with clichés and “OKs” tends to win over the room, be it filled with suits, players or media members. He never really says anything, and certainly nothing of importance or insight. But what he does say he says with conviction and a sincere face, so people buy it, even though they have no idea what they’re buying.
Cubit looks the head-coach part, too. Older. Experienced. Weathered face. Fit, but not too fit. All just so for such a role, with the added touch of a voice that reeks of decades spent barking out plays, only now softened for this softer age of athlete, where kissing ass and massaging egos comes as part of today’s College Coaching 101 handbook – and the Illini’s head man has studied it well.
Cubit is no dummy. He recognized opportunity two years ago, pulling his name out of the running for the vacant Western Illinois job in order to make himself available when Tim Beckman, fresh off a disastrous first year at Illinois, was seeking an offensive coordinator. Not only would he be remaining at the FBS level, having just been let go at Western Michigan, but he’d be stepping up in class from the Mid-American to the Big Ten, and avoiding that FCS stuff altogether.
You think Cubit didn’t have an inkling, at least in the back of his mind, that Beckman, who clearly is not the sharpest tool in the shed, might struggle running the show at a power-five school? Puh-leeze.
From the time the Philly area native arrived in Champaign, Ill., with his 60th birthday looming on the horizon, he knew his last chance to be the man at a big-time school – OK, theoretically or potentially if not in reality – had materialized, and he was going to do everything in his power not to blow it.
Solid citizen, good soldier, he never stepped out of line, and when Beckman apparently did and lost his job because of it, Cubit was the logical choice to step in. Would he accept the offer? To guide a team reportedly torn apart by Beckman’s bad ways with all the care and concern he could muster? Why, of course, it was the honorable thing to do … and, you know what, he’d even throw in being Mr. Glad-Hand to the public, ready to mingle and kibitz with students, alumni and townspeople whenever possible.
Oh, he played that all so well – and, yes, those things do matter, and they are good when it comes to salvaging AND building AND sustaining a program.
But what matters even more is the ability to coach on game day, to have a feel for the ebb and flow of what’s going on, to be able to adjust and best utilize the talent at one’s disposal … and, frankly, none of those traits is a calling card for Cubit.
Yeah, he came in and breathed some life into a dead Illinois offense in 2013. But, honestly, who wouldn’t have? The Illini only had one way to go there – up. Even with that, Cubit’s lethal trademarks of never wavering from his plan, no matter how ill-fated it may be for a specific game, and always, ALWAYS having his quarterback throw short of the first-down marker as the primary option with the receiver in no position to extend a series were obvious for anyone who cared to notice and not just tote the party line.
Gifted his type of guy behind center in Year 2 of his stay, Cubit saw his offense and the Illini’s postseason hopes sputter against legit competition. It wasn’t until AFTER Wes Lunt went down and career-long backup Reilly O’Toole was inserted when it mattered that a bowl-eligible season was saved.
This year, after taking over for Beckman and having his son/right-hand man Ryan Cubit join forces on the play-calling, Cubit’s offense took another step back. Despite having a dramatically improved defense, one that surrendered almost 11 points per game fewer than it had the year before, the Illini still were outscored.
In reality, for all the “feel goods” surrounding Cubit with his keeping the team intact following Beckman’s abrupt dismissal just a week before the season opener, the Illini underachieved in 2015. Big time. With a healthy Lunt, they posted their worst offensive output under Cubit, averaging just 22.7 points per game. That was down significantly from 25.9 in 2014, which was down significantly from 29.7 in 2013.
Does that seem like an offense, which is Cubit’s supposed area of expertise, on the rise?
You know, Beckman may have been a goof and a bully, but he could do one thing quite well it seemed, and that was recruit. In watching the Orange & Blue, we’re not seeing a squad that is sorely lacking in talent. Is it on par with Ohio State or Michigan State or even Wisconsin? No, it’s not. But Beckman, clearly, was bringing in some guys who could play at the Big Ten level … and who could handle the schoolwork at one of the nation’s finest public institutions of higher education.
The improvement was slow, but it was consistent, as the team went from 2 to 4 to 6 wins in his three years as head coach, with the future showing some serious promise thanks to the likes of ballyhooed running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn joining the fold.
“Becks” had Alex Golesh heading the efforts on the recruiting front, before, in a bizarre twist, he handed the recruiting reins to Ryan Cubit not long before his own dismissal. Lo and behold, guess who happened to be the first assistant to bolt the elder Cubit’s staff less than 72 hours after the extension was announced? Golesh, of course, who opted to reunite with former Toledo pal Matt Campbell after the latter was handed the top spot at Iowa State, which, well, isn’t exactly a step up from Illinois.
Anyway, Cubit wasn’t placed in a no-win situation this fall. He was placed in just the opposite. He had no pressure on him whatsoever. He couldn’t lose, no matter how much he lost. Anything the Illini achieved would be credited to him. Anything they didn’t would be attributed to Beckman.
Sadly, an extension was inevitable by an administration that is more concerned about looking good than actually being good right now.
Is Cubit a bad coach? Not at all. He is eminently mediocre. The absolute essence of .500, give or take a game or two. In eight years at Western Michigan, playing in a conference that affords anyone with a quality scheme or style to succeed, his record was a pedestrian 51-47. In his first season at the Illini helm, he went 5-7. All told, in FBS action, he is 56-54.
Beware, Illinois fans. Cubit is nothing more than that. Oh, he may be nothing less, either. But he certainly isn’t anything more.