Tim Beckman beamed earlier this week as he stood outside of Memorial Stadium in Champaign, enthusiastically discussing his preparation for the 2015 season as Illinois’ head football coach.
By the end of the week, he no longer held that job.
The university fired Beckman on Friday for mishandling athletes’ injuries, including instances in which he allegedly encouraged hurt players to avoid medical treatment in order to keep playing.
In an unusually frank statement, athletic director Mike Thomas said he dismissed Beckman after receiving the preliminary results of an external investigation that showed efforts to deter injury reporting.
“This decision was based on the health and well-being of our student-athletes,” Thomas said at a news conference in Champaign. “The findings don’t reflect the culture we are building with Illinois athletics.”
Beckman leaves Illinois with a lackluster 12-25 record, including 4-20 in Big Ten games. He will not receive the $3.1 million remaining on the last two years of his original five-year contract or the $743,000 buyout, the university said.
Beckman, 50, indicated in a statement released to the Associated Press that he’s prepared for a legal battle over what he deems a wrongful firing.
“I firmly deny the implications in Mike’s statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players,” Beckman said.
“The University’s actions today are in violation of the procedures mandated under my employment agreement. As such, I will vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights.”
Beckman’s firing comes at an unfortunate time for the football program, as the Illini are set to open their season Friday night against Kent State.
Bill Cubit, who joined the coaching staff as offensive coordinator in 2013, was named interim head coach for the 2015 season.
The preliminary findings also suggested players were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year, according to the university.
The findings were in keeping with a recent Tribune investigation that found Beckman discouraged players from resting if injured. The Tribune interviewed nearly 50 players Beckman has coached at Illinois, many of whom painted a portrait of a gruff, confrontational and verbally abusive leader who forced players to compete while injured and pressured some to give up their scholarships.
The university did not release the investigative report, which Thomas said has not been finalized, and he declined to reveal specifics from the early findings.
The Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet was hired to handle the investigation and has interviewed more than 90 people and reviewed more than 200,000 documents. It has examined a significant amount of practice and game video from Beckman’s three seasons as coach, according to a university release.
Thomas said the findings left him “shocked and angry” and said they do not reflect the athletic department’s culture. When asked how he missed red flags during Beckman’s tenure, he said the athletic program is vast.
“Everyone needs to be held accountable,” Thomas said. “This situation is an opportunity. Why did we not know this? Why weren’t they shared with people?”
Thomas’ harsh rhetoric, however, stands in stark contrast to his impassioned defense of Beckman this spring after former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic accused the coach of mistreating players. Cvijanovic lashed out at Beckman on Twitter and in an interview with the Tribune, alleging that Beckman forced him to play and practice through injuries and essentially bullied him off the team.
Dismissing Cvijanovic’s claims at the time as “a personal attack,” Thomas said the allegations were not substantiated by his own review of school records.
“The feedback I get from players and our players’ families is that our coaches genuinely care for them and treat them like their own children,” Thomas said May 11.
Cvijanovic said Friday that Beckman’s firing was a “step in the right direction.” He tweeted that he wants to meet with officials from Illinois, the Big Ten and the NCAA to discuss better methods for injury reporting.
“I felt like it was definitely right,” he told the Tribune. “But I feel like it’s more than just Beckman. I feel like it’s a systemic issue.”
Kenny Knight, a former Illinois receiver who had alleged Beckman threw him to the ground during a 2013 practice, said he hopes Beckman’s firing changes the coaching culture.
“If nothing else, maybe it will stop coaches (from abusing power),” he told the Tribune. “The goal is for coaches to not act like this. I hope it at least stops or makes them second-guess.”
Thomas said the university is “a few months away” from hiring a replacement while Cubit leads the team this season. He said he believes his own job is secure.
“It doesn’t hinder the passion and energy I come to work with every day,” he said. “I’m all about the orange and blue. It’s an exciting time to be here. We’re working through some challenges. You ask, ‘How can I make this a better place?’ ”
Some current Illinois players said they were surprised the investigation unearthed fireable offenses.
“I can only speak to my experiences, and it’s the exact opposite of everything that’s been alleged,” senior offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. “Nothing that I’ve experienced at the university would even hint at some of the things that have been alleged.”
Karras said players are prepared to soldier on this season.
“We’re a pretty resilient group,” he said. “It’s horrible news and I love Coach Beck and wish him all the best. We have an obligation to our team and our fans and the university. We have to go out and put on a good show Friday.”
The dismissal is the latest university headline after a summer of administrative departures, scandal and lawsuits over alleged student-athlete mistreatment.
Earlier this week, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida announced his resignation after the recent disclosure that private email accounts were used in an apparent attempt to circumvent state public records law. The emails showed that, beginning in 2014, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Adesida and others used personal accounts to avoid public scrutiny concerning controversial university decisions.
Wise resigned Aug. 6, one day before about 1,100 pages of emails became public.
The university also is dealing with a $10 million federal lawsuit that alleges the women’s basketball program discriminated against black players. The suit, filed last month, alleges that coaches deliberately wanted to decrease the number of African-American players on the team, held segregated practices, prohibited white players from rooming with black players and described black players as “ghetto.”
Outside investigators hired by the university found no wrongdoing on the part of the coaches or Thomas in regard to the women’s basketball program.
A former women’s soccer player also filed a lawsuit in June contending the school and its athletic department mishandled her concussion.