Having A Plan October 11, 2012
If you’re a long time ALE reader, you’re probably familiar with The 19 Point Plan For Fixing Illini Football. After the miserable 2009 season, I took it upon myself to fix the program. By writing about it. On my unaffiliated blog in the middle of Nowheresville, Internet. I laid out 19 things that the University of Illinois could do to change the culture around the program. I started right after Zook was retained. I ended some time in April. It took a long time for me to write 19 posts back then.
I’ve always believed that the coach that would finally turn around Illini Football would have a similar plan. These are the tenets of who we are. These are the systems we’re going to put in place. This is how we’re going to get from point A to point B.
Lou Tepper’s plan seemed to be “who cares about offense; we can win games 7-0″. Ron Turner’s plan seemed to be “who cares about recruiting; my offense will be unstoppable”. Ron Zook’s plan seemed to be “who cares about systems; I’ll recruit the top athletes in the country and they’ll win by out-athleting everyone”. Fail, and a fail, and a fail.
Which is why I was excited to hear Tim Beckman talk about his plan. The things he wanted to do to build a football program at the University of Illinois. The way his players would behave, the way his staff would recruit, the way his systems would be implemented. I was cautiously excited that we had finally hired a coach with a Plan.
And that excitement lasted about five games. After the Penn State loss, I couldn’t really see the Plan for all the turnovers, penalties, and uninspired players on the sideline. Sitting at 2-4 with what should be a top-25 defense, it’s really hard to see the forest.
But there’s still a plan. And on the Big Ten teleconference this week, Tim Beckman talked about it again. You can listen to it here (starts at about the 5:00 mark), or you can read some of the transcript here. This is the part I focused on:
“The blueprint is not just my blueprint. It’s a blueprint that has worked in numerous places,” he said. “It’s some things I’ve learned from some great head football coaches that have won or competed for national championship and people that I’ve been around. It’s a plan that I believe in, and a plan I’ve seen work as an assistant, as a defensive coordinator and as a head football coach. Are there road bumps in it? There are right now, because we’ve lost three straight football games. But we’re going to continue to do what we believe in, what this coaching staff believes in, and basically what these players believe in.
“No, we’re not playing up to what we’d like to, but everything else that we’re doing off the field has been very positive. Our players are going to class, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. We’re providing them with community services and those sorts of things. That hasn’t won a football game for us yet in the last three weeks, but I know our players are doing what they’re asked to do. I’m proud of them in responding that way. Now we just have to finish football games.”
I asked him a few questions about this plan back in Rantoul. He kept referencing a “manual” that he goes by, that he’s assembled over the years. I asked which coaches greatly influenced that manual, and he said it was mostly three: Urban Meyer (who he worked with at Bowling Green), Jim Tressel (who he worked for at Ohio State), and Mike Gundy (when he was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State). He watched how they set up their programs, and how they handled their athletes, and he kept notes so that one day, when he had his own BCS-conference program, he could implement everything.
From the way he talked about it, I don’t think the plan had much to do with football schemes. I don’t think it has a page for “we’ll run the football on offense and implement a 3-4 defense”. I believe it’s mostly a plan for how to build a college football program. How to build a recruiting base and recruit to your systems. Class attendance responsibilities for players. How to bring young players along slowly and build depth. That kind of stuff.
To be honest, I needed him to reiterate this on that teleconference this week. Staying home for the holidays will be tough to swallow this year (we finally go to back-to-back bowls and suddenly I’m all “how about FIVE in a row?”), so I need to be told that we’re not about to fall off another 1996 or 2003 cliff. I need to know there’s a plan. Because when you’re losing four of your first six games by 17 or more points, well, it’s tough to see any plan.
But hearing about it again reminds me that this is the only way we’ll ever climb out of the basement of the Big Ten. It has to be a long-term plan, implemented slowly, built with a firm foundation, where each position group on the field is slowly pieced together and developed. You identify the type of offensive linemen you want, you have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C at every position in every recruiting class, you slowly develop the players when they arrive on campus, you find places in blowout games to get young players experience, and you try to balance everything so that you’re never in a situation with all of your OL talent in one class. And you do that for every position. That’s the path that I believe will get us out of the 20 year rut that we’re in.
Which is why I’m encouraged after hearing about his “blueprint” again. Yes, early returns are very poor. Our defensive players have taken to this revised defensive scheme like Missouri has taken to the SEC. What should be a 6-6 season looks like it’s headed for 4-8 or 3-9, and that’s an awful first sign. Especially with so many seniors graduating.
But he still needs 4 years to implement his plan. When asked about it this week, Mike Thomas referenced his hiring of Butch Jones at Cincinnati. Brian Kelly went 12-1 and got the Notre Dame job, so Thomas went out and found Jones. And in his first year, Cincy went 4-8. But Jones has implemented his system, they won 9 games last year, and now they’re currently ranked #21.
Will we follow the same path? I doubt it. The 2009 collapse did a number on Zook’s recruiting, and there are several holes in future depth charts (for example, there’s not a single junior or sophomore cornerback on the roster – once these seniors are gone, we’ll only have freshmen and sophomores). That’s the kind of thing a fully implemented plan could have prevented. Even if they were Plan C recruits, you’d still have experienced cornerbacks on the roster.
But Zook never thought like that. He just collected talent. And slept maybe 3 hours ever night. And bench pressed the office staff. And water skied.
Tim Beckman thinks like that. He wants to fully implement this blueprint. Early returns are poor, but he deserves the chance to fully build this team with the plan he’s been developing for 20 years. He has his manual, and he’s going to stick to it.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t roll up a page and smoke it on the sideline.