CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Earlier this week, Mike Thomas got a look at the preliminary findings of an external investigation into the Illini football program. After reading it, he said he was, “shocked and angry.”
So much so that on Friday, Illinois’ Director of Athletics fired his head football coach, Tim Beckman, exactly one week before the season opener.
The reason for the sudden dismissal, Thomas said, was Beckman’s mishandling of injuries and an attempt to force players off scholarship before graduation.
It sounded like an affirmation of charges brought by former offensive lineman Simon Cjivanovic, who first brought these issues to light by tweeting his complaints on Mother’s Day weekend.
“Earlier this week I was briefed and told (Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet) had interviewed more than 90 people and reviewed more than 200,000 documents,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries.
Beckman said in a statement released to The Associated Press on Friday that the findings of an investigation indicating he interfered with medical procedures and pressured players to play hurt are "utterly false" and suggested he might take legal action.
Beckman also said the decision to fire him violated his contract. He said he will "vigorously defend both my reputation and my legal rights."
Thomas also said in some instances student-athletes were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren’t on the team.
“That does not reflect our values or our commitment to the welfare of the student-athletes and I’ve chosen to act accordingly,” Thomas said.
The unexpectedly swift action seems to have caught everyone off guard, including the football players who were informed of the decision at a team meeting at 1 p.m. Friday. And the coaches, who were told by Thomas moments before that.
“We got text messages about a team meeting at 1 o’clock and I had no idea what it was about,” senior running back Josh Ferguson said. “When I got to the stadium some players were talking and guessing that this might be it. But we were shocked.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit took his wife out for breakfast Friday morning and shortly after leaving the restaurant his phone rang. It was Thomas with some urgent news and an important question.
The news: I’m firing your boss.
The question: Would you be willing to be the interim head coach?
Cubit, 61, who served eight seasons as head coach at Western Michigan University, told Thomas he’ll do whatever is asked of him. His base salary of $515,000 a year will be supplemented with $100,000 a month for the next four months, boosting his compensation package to $915,000 this season.
Regarding money, Thomas said because Beckman is being fired for cause, the university will not owe him the $3.1 million remaining on the last two years of his original five-year contract, nor will it owe him the $743,000 called for if his contract had been bought out.
Cubit said he was shocked by the news, but as a veteran football coach he’s learned to adjust quickly when problems arise.
“The bottom line is that it’s all about the student-athletes,” Cubit said. “We have guys down there in the locker room who are wondering. They’re a little nervous. There are a lot of emotions.
“I told them the one emotion you’d better have is perseverance because there’s a chance to go out there and make a legacy for yourself and this university.
“Mike asked me to do it. I love this university and I love these student-athletes, so for me it was a no-brainer.”
The players said they’d have no trouble lining up to play for their new head coach.
“We love coach Cubit,” offensive lineman Ted Karras said. “I’ve loved him from the minute he first walked into the building. He’s a straight-shooter. He’s going to tell you how it is. I love playing for him, so that’s no issue.”