Smile Politely

A fresh look for a new season

Football season, improbably, is once again upon us. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, for the annual football season preview. 

Unfortunately, the past is not giving us a whole lot. The football team has a new head coach, Tim Beckman, and along with him pretty much an entirely new coaching staff. There are some new faces at key positions (more on that later), so past performance of the team probably isn’t going to tell you much either.

From what do we have to make our divinations of the new coaching staff? The annual scrimmage that is the Spring Game, which doesn’t tell you much.


There was a moment in the Spring Game that I think serves as a great preview of what this football season is going to be about. Tim Beckman went to the stands to have a fan call a play. Sure, talking to folks in the stands as part of the main show has a Let’s Make a Deal game show sensibility to it, but this is the Spring Game we’re talking about, and the folks who’d braved the nasty weather deserved a reward. So Tim Beckman runs — literally runs — up the stands with a microphone and, in that inimitable gym-teacher-esque shout of his, has a fan call a play. Said play results in a first down. Tim Beckman then proceeds to give the fan a giant, enthusiastic, non-ironic high five.

This is why I love Tim Beckman, and why I’m genuinely looking forward to this season.

Sure, Beckman has yet to actually, truly coach a game at Illinois. We don’t really know much about him, or his team, at all. Will Tim Beckman be the first to bring sabermetrics-style statistical analysis to major-conference college football, boldly pointing to a growing body of statistical analysis showing that teams should rarely, if ever, punt? Probably not, sadly: that would be awesome. Is he going to bring back the single-wing offense, or some other similar goofball scheme that exists only in D-III and antiquated NFL touchdown songs? Highly doubtful. Beckman is under a lot of pressure to perform, to show that he is the horse that can make the big jump in stakes and run in the Big Ten. Such pressure does not beget creativity.

But what we do know is that he’s the kind of guy who gives high fives. I approve of high fives. A head football coach that is high-fiving random people in the stands tells me that Beckman is having fun. “Intensity” is one of his favorite words, and it is not just PR palaver to Beckman: the man practically shouts in normal conversation. He’s fired up. But not in a Rich Rodriguez, “I think this guy is going to strangle someone” kind of way. In a “HOLY COW! I just got promoted from coaching the Toledo Rockets to being a head coach in the Big Ten. THIS IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN!” kind of way. And I’m down with that.

Because, and I hate to spoil it for you but here it is: football is just a game, and football played on a Big Ten scale is beyond a game: it’s a spectacle. You may find it a giant waste of institutional resources, a spectacle in a bread and circuses kind of way. Or, you may find that it is a worthy endeavor, a chance for the university and the community to come together in a communal space and root for a communal goal, to marvel at the sheer beauty, the raw power and grace of the game. But for it or against it, it is a spectacle. So shouldn’t the people running the spectacle have some kind of awareness of that, and moreover, shouldn’t they seem invested in the spectacle-as-good-and-fun side of the ledger? If you agree, Tim Beckman is your man.

So what can we actually expect from the football team? That’s pretty hard to say.

Illinois is missing some of the top producers from last year. Everyone is always quick to assume that means a huge drop in production, but it doesn’t always: standouts come from surprising places, especially in college athletics. Only Whitney Mercilus and his mother accurately predicted his capacity for greatness prior to last season. Jonathan Brown would have had a much fuller sheet of stats if Whitney Mercilus wasn’t a quarter-step faster getting to the ball carrier or quarterback. Who knows who may step up?

That being said, Illinois is looking for a lot of people to step up. The receiving corps remains a huge question. A.J. Jenkins is gone — he was stellar in the first six games before he and returning quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found trouble hooking up in the back half of the season. Those who say Jenkins wasn’t as good as people thought must know something that NFL Scouts don’t because Jenkins went to the 49ers in the first round. Or you can assume that the 49ers have cable, saw those last six regular-seaon games, and people on internet message boards are mostly uninformed. Hope that Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford, or a yet-unknown receiver steps up big. Ditto running back: the running game never seemed to really find a footing last year, and even at that the go-to back, Jason Ford is no longer around. Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, and Dami Ayoola are all going to be looking to establish themselves as the go-to runner. Special teams is a large question as well, particularly punting, but that’s okay: these types of thing are what truly make the early season non-conference games worth watching.

So Saturday, the Illini suit up against Western Michigan in the first of what is unlikely to be a particularly challenging non-conference schedule, Arizona State the lone notable exception. We’ll talk more about the conference games as they approach — you’ve got a few weeks. Saturday’s game kicks off at 11:00 a.m., and the forecast is bleak. Any weather-related schedule changes will be announced first at, or you can always take refuge in front of a TV (ESPN U), or catch the live-stream on the web.

What can you expect for the season from us here at Smile Politely? We’ll be providing you with a fresh and different perspective: not just about the football team, but what the football team means to Champaign-Urbana as a community, or maybe what it says about us as a community that we care so much about football. Travis McDade returns behind the camera, so expect to see the same phenomenal and unique photographs that have become a staple of the SP football coverage. And McDade and I will be tacking our musings multimedia on Smile Politely Radio and then archived to the podcast. More on that later as well. For now, go high five someone. It’s football season.

Related Articles