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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

He's not that bad because:

Have you seen Illini football? As in the historical construct of Illini football? Deng Xiaoping had people run over with tanks, turned the screws of political oppression on millions of Tibetans, and was a supporter of the Great Leap Forward. Still, considering his role in the sheer number of people raised out of poverty, he might be the Chinese leader with the greatest positive impact on the people of the nation. (He also broke his leg playing pool once. HOW HARD DID DENG XIAOPING BILLIARD?)

That's the "first among a group of mediocre, often openly malicious peers" defense. It is really way more valid a defense than you even imagined once you see Illinois' struggles visualized over the past century via Bill Connelly's projected S&P+ for the Illini over the course of the century.


There are a lot of ways to put it. Illinois might be the Ole Miss of the Big Ten, a schizoid, boom-or-bust program whose booms don't make a spectacular amount of noise, and whose busts sink lower than one could imagine. The Illini football program claims two seasons with ten wins in the last twenty-five years. They can also wince at the four two-win seasons, the three win seasons, or the 0-11 1997 season.

Since 2000, the Illini have lost 104 games, meaning the once bright-eyed Illini fan who onboarded with the team after the 2001 10-2 campaign have watched their team lose enough for two teams over the ensuing period. This is a literal statement: the Illini have lost more games in that span than Ohio State and Michigan's combined 98 losses. That bright-eyed Illini fan is now old beyond their years, drinks hard liquor because beer stopped working a long time ago, and guffaws like a barking seal at the mention of Ron Zook's appearance in a Rose Bowl.

This is an actual sentence from that 49-17 rout's AP recap re: Illinois:

Certainly, a better test could have come against Georgia or Virginia Tech, or maybe next week against Ohio State in the national title game.

By comparison, Ole Miss only lost 86 games during that same span, a low total given the Rebel's sustained general misery. There may be another way to look at Illinois besides "Like a way less racist Oxford on the stank-flats of Illinois," and by extension also another way of looking at the job Tim Beckman's done so far in pulling the Illini off the floor, into something like a standing position, and then at least halfway onto a convenient barstool.

Beckman somehow got Illinois to .500 during the regular season in 2014, and not entirely through an easy menu of empty calorie out-of-conference games. The Illini beat Minnesota in October, and finished the season with wins over Penn State and Northwestern. (The Illini have a sneaky advantage for a while here: most any win can be considered a quality win because we are still dealing with Illinois.) Three conference wins is paltry. It also represents the most conference wins any Illini team's had since 2010. What you call a hardship diet, the Illini fan will call a buffet.

Beckman also has Illinois trending mostly upward in the recruiting rankings, and not just through the kind of parking lot beggary we're fond of making fun of. They're currently in the mid-thirties per most recruiting services, and consistently bringing in talent, a thing Illinois really should consider a rarity. Stuck between conference rivals and located two extremely long hours away from Chicago, Champaign-Urbana isn't Lubbock, but it's also not Miami or Los Angeles in terms of proximity to speedy young men in need of playing time.

So 6-7, relatively speaking, is something to be pretty happy about for Illinois--and by extension, for Tim Beckman. (Like, not ecstatic or bounding off the walls, but still cautiously optimistic nonetheless.)*

*From Ryan:"Since 2008, Illinois is 1-18 against ranked teams. the one win was over ASU in 2011, who finished 6-7 and opened the door for todd graham. so never say illinois is not an agent of change." Ryan finds the meanest facts ever.

This is all happening despite Beckman not being the coach you'd pick first in the game of "that man is obviously supremely successful." Beckman may have little control over the sound of his own voice. He can be intense to the point of awkwardness, both in press conferences and on the sideline, going so far this offseason to suggest the press should be more positive about the Illini because, um, something something mutual benefit. He bellows a lot, could be described as "fiery," and steps on his own feet in press conferences from time to time.

In the grand taxonomy of college coaches, file Beckman in the Bombastic Meathead Crew along with cohorts like Will Muschamp, Mike Dubose, and former Illini coach Ron Zook. In terms of historical Illinois head coaches, Beckman after two seasons is dismal even by local standards, but still trending up from dismal. That's all good news in context, if only because things have by tradition been very, very bad at Illinois.

You want a one-handed economist like Harry Truman said, because there's always something coming in the other hand you might not want to hear. This is the other hand. It has something bad in it.

The last coach with any real success at Illinois was Ron Zook, who then stayed until things regressed and then got fired. Before him was Ron Turner, who took the team to a Sugar Bowl, then stayed until he got fired. Mike White got the Illini's other ten win season in semi-recent history before succumbing to NCAA violations and more regression toward the mean. There is a pattern and it is an ugly one. Illinois achieves some degree of success, suffers an insulin crash, and then bottoms out only to a.) either start the cycle all over with low peaks and deep lows, or b.) just ride a muddle of varying lows until firing their coach.

Only one coach bucked the pattern: John Mackovic, the coach who in four seasons somehow avoided having a single losing season in Champaign. He also deserves credit for being the only one to understand how special he wasn't, in the long run. After a ten win season in in 1989, he, too, started the long slide backwards with 8 and 6 win seasons, and then wisely rode the waves of hiring season to the Texas job. He then went on to suffer the worst loss in Texas history, and then coached so inhumanely at Arizona that players mutinied and refused to play for him, but still: Mackovic got paychecks into the 21st century. Bailing on Illinois at just the right time undoubtedly helped.

That's the real tragicomedy here. If Beckman's successful, and has any clue about how things have worked out for everyone else at Illinois historically, he'll bail for the first slightly better job in need of his services. You don't want to go to assume you're the one that won't change things forever--but that's probably not you, right? At least by the averages, and certainly not in any terms of Illinois' averages, especially? As a rule, all football programs eventually eat the ones they love. If Tim Beckman leaves after the first course, you can't blame him. He's seen this dinner before. It ends up with him on the wrong end of the fork before coffee and dessert.