Friday, December 09, 2011

The anti-Zooker

The typical downside of hiring a "name" guy is that said guy is usually available for a reason. Proof: Charlie Weis is now working at Kansas. Illinois hired Ron Zook after he took over one of the top five-ish programs in the country and couldn't do better than 8-5. Steve Spurrier won a million games before him and Urban Meyer won a million games after him, which makes a 23-14 record at Florida not so awesome.

There was basically nothing in his track record that indicated Zook would be a particularly good head coach at a place like Illinois. The guy could recruit like a mofo and had a metric ton of noteworthy assistant jobs (assistant head coach at Va. Tech, D-coordinator at Florida, D-coordinator for the Saints, etc.) but had minimal successful head coaching experience, which was borne out in his inexplicable inability to know when to punt or correctly use replay challenges. Obviously, below-average results at Florida =/= doing well* at Illinois (one weird Rose Bowl season notwithstanding).

Tim Beckman has a Wikipedia page that's two paragraphs long despite having the same amount of head coaching experience (three years) as pre-Illinois Zook. The entirety of his meaningful coaching background: five years as D-coordinator at Bowling Green, two years as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, two years as D-coordinator at Oklahoma State and three years as head coach at Toledo. Getting the Illinois job represents a pretty meteoric rise for a guy who's still only 46 and probably would be unidentifiable to 90 percent of the population of Toledo (let alone any recruit in the state of Illinois). So his resume is about an inch long, his only coaching experience is in the MAC and he may or may not be any good at recruiting. In short, Tim Beckman is most definitely not Ron Zook. Whether that's a good thing probably depends a lot on your opinion of Illinois football and what it is and/or should be.

Going back a little bit, the Okie State job was kind of an odd outlier in terms of geography but was really what got Beckman a head coaching gig (being a MAC coordinator and a cornerbacks coaches won't get you real far). He took a bad defense and made it awful in '07 (101st in yardage, 79th in scoring) and then slightly better in '08 (93rd in yardage, 76th in scoring). Woo. That was apparently enough for Toledo, which probably figured a decent D-I coordinator with gobs of Ohio connections would work out OK. And he did: 5-7, 8-5, 8-4.

Since Toledo is Toledo and you don't pay attention to Toledo, it might interest you to know that Toledo is a pretty good MAC program. The previous three coaches: Nick Saban (yup), Gary Pinkel and Tom Amstutz. I don't feel like looking up their cumulative record at UT, but I guarantee you it's impressive. That said, Amstutz "stepped down" at the end of 2008 because Toledo had gone from consistent division winner to blah. He went 5-7, 5-7 and 3-9 in his last three years (don't worry about who those wins in '08 were against lalalalala) and pretty obviously wasn't on the brink of turning things around. Beckman got there and did it in a hurry.

Here's the part that's kinda hard to figure out: Toledo's defenses weren't very good the last three years. UT finished 76th and 89th this year, 56th and 73rd (not bad) in 2010 and 95th and 116th (!) in 2009. There's obviously been some level of improvement and he's going against MAC offenses and blah blah blah, but man ... I was expecting something slightly more impressive overall. Amstutz's last couple defenses were about equal to the '09 and '11 ones.

There is a pretty significant caveat: Legitimately good offensive teams have absolutely shredded Toledo the past couple years, but the apples-to-apples games have (mostly) gone pretty well. Boise State (65 points), Arizona (41), Northern Illinois (65), Boise State again (40) and Northern Illinois again (63) have definitely skewed the numbers. Outside of those five games, Toledo has given up more than 30 points in regulation just twice in the last two regular seasons. Why Toledo has been giving up 64 points a game to an NIU team that averages about half that number is another question.

So ... I have no idea what to make of Beckman. His defenses were pretty decent except when they were awful, and his offenses were generally pretty good (and MAC-tastic in their spreadiness) but definitely weren't coached by him. Relevant note from ESPN:
Beckman said Friday he'll run a spread at Illinois. He added that he'll try to bring Toledo offensive coordinator Matt Campbell to Champaign ...
That seems like a good idea since the Toledo offense was eighth in both scoring and yardage this year. The Illinois offense was good in 2010 and then a total disaster this year minus Mikel Leshoure; Paul Petrino apparently forgot how to coach or something. Based on UT's last couple years, I'm guessing Campbell (or whoever) will have Illinois throwing at least a little more next year. I'm not sure if that's gonna be a good or bad thing for Nate Scheesdfkjlajfkadsfe, but improvement by default is likely.

I can't really say that about the program as a whole. I do think going the "improved a meh team" route is a lot more practical for Illinois than the "won some at a should-be-dominant school" route, but whether Beckman is actually a program builder or just a guy who had a couple solid years in the MAC is unknowable. Also, stuff like this ...
"It's not broken, it isn't," Beckman told reporters after meeting with Illinois' players. "This is a gold mine. You can win at the University of Illinois."
... sounds great but is hard to reconcile with the fact that Illinois has gotten to eight wins just three times in the last 15 years. Michigan and Nebraska aren't going anywhere, and Notre Dame will get the best recruits out of Chicago this year and next year and every year until Chicago falls off the face of the Earth. There are some obvious disadvantages; a gold mine this is not.

It was pointed out that AD Illinois Mike Thomas has a pretty solid hiring history:
The athletic director, answering questions about fans on local talk radio and Internet message boards who said Beckman wasn't a big enough name, said he heard much the same at the University of Cincinnati, where he hired a pair of MAC coaches that produced consistent winners, Brian Kelly, now at Notre Dame, and current Bearcats coach Butch Jones, whose team is 9-3 this season.

"They all said 'Who's Brian Kelly?' They all said 'Who's Butch Jones.'" Thomas said. "I get that."

First of all, Brian Kelly wasn't much of an unknown in the Midwest by the time Cincinnati hired him; he won a bazillion games and a couple national titles at Grand Valley State and then won the MAC at Central Michigan. Butch Jones also had a way better record at CMU than Beckman had at Toledo, which means both of those guys both had better resumes than Beckman's right now. I'd also argue that winning at Cincinnati is actually easier than winning at Illinois because of (a) the depth of recruiting talent in Ohio and (b) the consistently mediocre Big East. In other words, hiring Brian Kelly at Cincinnati is not the same as hiring Tim Beckman at Illinois except in the most superficial way.

Illinois is a decent program that should regularly get to bowl games but is gonna have a really hard time competing for Big Ten championships barring Tim Beckman becoming Urban Meyer. I don't think that's happening. The more reasonable question is whether he's better than Ron Zook, but again, that's pretty much unknowable. Solve for the variables here: Microscopic MAC sample size + middling results as a coordinator + middle-of-the-pack Big Ten program + zero geographic ties = ???

His resume offers nothing of relevance** except for the complete lack of career similarities, and that might be good or bad or none of the above. I mean, The Zooker wasn't awful except for, like, all the in-game stuff. Beckman will be better there; whether he'll actually produce something better than .500 on a fairly regular basis is what matters.

*Fun fact: Illinois became the first team in D-I/FBS history to start a season 6-0 and finish it 6-6. Go team.

**A close loss to this year's crappy version of Ohio State doesn't mean a whole lot.


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