Would you consider last year's improvement to six wins the springboard you needed?
Well, I hope so. Yeah. I think we're surging forward. We've improved every year. Football-wise, that first year ... I mean, it was terrible. We just were not successful on the football field. We did some things right off, but not on.
And then, we've gotten better every year. That's the intention of this program, to get better every year.
That 2-10 first year was pretty rough. Was that just a new coach, being there were things you didn't expect, coming from the MAC?
I don't think it's coming from the MAC, because my experience is coaching in the national championship game at Ohio State [cornerbacks coach, 2006]. I've been around winners a majority of my life. To say that you coached in a national championship game, not many people can say that. It was a great privilege for me.
I think it was just buying into some of the things that we were asking our players to do, and me being able to adapt to some of the things that I was asking our players to do. So it was on both sides, but of course, being the head football coach, you take the pressure, and I'm taking it. We did not play well, and I didn't do things the way that I wanted them to be done.
I let the pressure get to me sometimes. It just was a terrible year, but I think we've gotten better every year.
Is there anything different in recruiting when you're starting at Toledo vs. when you're starting at a Big Ten program?
You're still competing. You're competing against different people.
So the first year, you're scrambling. You get the job in December. It becomes a dead period, so you can't recruit face-to-face. You get your staff in January. That is tough, but that's part of the job.
You've got people committed, and I was a man of my word. If someone that I hadn't been recruiting [was already committed to Illinois before I was hired], I was going to keep my commitment. I wasn't just gonna pull the scholarship.
I think the first recruiting class was real tough, just like it was at Toledo. But I think the last two recruiting classes have met our standards and our needs, and we've gotten better and better.
The Chicago area has a lot of good recruits, but that's an area a lot of schools would consider their home base. How difficult is it to get a foot in the door?
Ohio State played in a national championship game, and the majority of our starters were from our state. I do believe in trying to occupy as much of your state and building a fence around it and keeping as many players at home as you possible can. Makes the state and your university better by keeping your home players home.
The way that Chicago is as a city -- a lot of move-ins, a lot of people from different areas -- may be not the way it is in Columbus, Cincinnati, or Cleveland.
I think that is something that we're striving at becoming better at each and every year, through relationships. That first year, I'd never recruited Chicago.
Even at Toledo?
Well we did, we had coaches there. But I was the head coach, so I'd come in there for a day, but as an assistant, I had never recruited Chicago before, so the relationships weren't there.
So now we've been here going on our fourth year, we have relationships with high school coaches and they understand what we're trying to build here. If you look at our last year's recruiting class, in comparison to the previous years, we're getting a lot more of the in-state player. [Illinois signed six in-state players in 2015, compared to the previous three-year average of 5.7.]
Illinois has improved from two to four to six wins under Beckman, with one of the Big Ten's more experienced teams for 2015. Michael Hickey/Getty
One thing you guys do is get a lot of JUCO players. Is that something you wanted to do?
No. Had to.
The first year, we could have not practiced in the spring if we hadn't gone out and got JUCOs, kids that could come in January. After that first year, we only had four or five DBs on scholarship. So the numbers were so poor, just as we're dealing with numbers now on our offensive line, we've had to go out and get January players so that we could make it through spring ball.
Did a majority of your freshmen from your first class end up redshirting?
Mason Monheim will have the opportunity to be a 50-plus-game starter. We started him and another true freshman, Mike Svetina, at linebacker due to injury. We had no depth. V'Angelo Bentley, he's a corner that will be a four-year starter. We had to play Austin Schmidt at tackle. You don't usually want to play freshmen at tackle, but we had to do that. Justin Hardy started as a true freshman at wide receiver. He'll have his second degree by the time he finishes his fourth year.
This freshman ineligibility thing that's been tossed around, I wonder how that would affect a program that's trying to build.
It'd be tough. It would've definitely put us in some dire problems early. We've got a lot of players that are coming back for their fourth year as starters or guys who have come in for their first year as junior college players and started for us. So yeah, those first two years, it would've been extremely, even tougher to put players out there.
I've got 21 seniors this next year, and a majority of them already have their degrees. So that means they got their degree before the four years of eligibility.
You guys have improved two wins every year, so I guess that means in a few years in the new eight-team playoff, you're going to go 16-0 ...
(Laughs) I'll take it.
But what, realistically, does Illinois need to do to win the Big Ten West?
I think we just need to play more consistent. The Iowa game, we played three pretty darn good quarters, we're in the football game, we don't make a play and we miss a couple plays, and that's the game of football. We made those plays against Northwestern. We made those plays against Minnesota.
Our goal is to get better in everything we do, so football field-wise, academic-wise, there better be more than 52 kids on the football team getting a 3.0 out of 109. We better be at 54 or 55 or whatever.
THE BATTLE FOR THE HAT
THE BATTLE FOR THE HAT
You made a point to start a rivalry with Northwestern. Why do you think that's important?
I think that's just college football. It's respect. I've been blessed to be in probably the most named rivalries there are, from being a GA at Auburn to Ohio State to Oklahoma State-Oklahoma. I even feel that Toledo-Bowling Green is a great rivalry because distance doesn't separate them.
I respect Northwestern, always have. I used to go and study with Fitzy [Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald] and just discuss different ways of playing ball. I hired a Northwestern guy at Toledo because of his background with them.
We're both from the same state. We're both great, great programs that have a lot of prestige and do things outstanding academically. So I thought it was just a great opportunity.
Is Northwestern the only natural rival for Illinois?
Yeah, I think in college football when you talk about two teams in the same state, there's always that built-in rivalry. Texas-Texas A&M, USC-UCLA, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Auburn-Alabama. And heck, we get to play them in Soldier Field now.
Are they the team you run into most on the recruiting trail?
Not as much. You're running into everybody in Chicago.
I think that we have a lot of the same standards for student-athletes we have to recruit. Academic standards are tough here. You can't just be an NCAA qualifier and get into school here.
You've got to be able to meet some structure that is required, so there have been players that I'd love to recruit in Chicago, but I can't because we can't get them into school here, but that's just part of the way it is.
Would you prefer that schools let in more kids, or are you okay with a lot of these Big Ten schools' high standards?
I'm all for a level playing field so we can all recruit the same. That's not the case in the Big Ten.
So not just the Big Ten compared to other conferences. You think within the Big Ten there's a lot of difference?
Oh yeah, there's certain people that certain schools can recruit that some of us can't. That's just part of it.
If we're all in this together, what is the track record? When we're making decisions on should a young man sit out, what's the track record at the school? We didn't have anybody leave, or our APR was perfect last year. So it means that our players are being successful in the classroom. And they're pursuing their degrees. They're not leaving our school and transferring.
I think we're making strides football-wise, and our numbers in academics, I'll put up against anybody in this country.
We're all in this to make our student-athletes' lives better, as long as they're living up to the expectations. Sit in the first two rows of every one of your classes, be on Illini time -- 10 minutes early for everything you do, every class, every appointment you be on time -- reach your full potential and treat women with respect, that is the four things I ask our players to do.
If you were able to give more benefits to your athletes, or even more money, is that something you'd be open to?
Those decisions aren't made at my level. They're made way above me.
The opportunity of taking some financial aid and putting it in an account, and as long as you stayed eligible and did what you were supposed to do, the reward after you were done was to have that? I think that would be something that would definitely show that they did it academically and athletically.
If they're doing everything that I ask them to do, I'm going to be a father. So if that answers the question about me trying to find more finances for them, I'm going to be a father. What would your father do?
He'd probably want to get me more money.
Yeah, as long as you're doing what you're supposed to do.
On that same note, concussions and CTE have come up a lot. Is that something you worry about?
Always. Again, what would a father say? He'd say the exact same thing.
There are some things that we've got to change. We've changed our tackling, we've worked on during practice, trying to make situations concussion-free as much as we possibly can. There have been some dummies that we've gone to tackling-wise instead of tackling one another. Let's make it more shoulder.
Something you say at Big Ten Media Days every year is happy birthday to your mom, but it's on a different day every year. We just want to know when it actually is.
(Laughs) July 26th. She comes to all of those days to celebrate her birthday, and to be honest with you, I've never got to celebrate her birthday, because we're usually busy somewhere. But because that week has always been the week of it, she's always there, so this is the first time I've ever got to spend her birthday with her. So that's why I always say it.
Yeah, I should probably say the exact date. It's one of those days, but I think this last year it was on Friday and I spoke on Thursday, so you're right, it wasn't her birthday.
But I always say it, because when you're a coach's wife ... A lot of people don't know, there are two coaches in our conference whose moms are coaches' wives, me and Harbaugh. [Tim's father, Dave, was a longtime college and pro assistant.] So ask John some time, too, John and Jim, because they both have expressed it.
You don't get to spend birthdays with your mom if it's in July, because your dad's gone at preseason camp, when he was in the NFL, or close to the beginning, and you might get to as a kid, but when you're older you don't get to spend it with her. So I try to make it special for her, because in the long run, she was the one who made me want to be a coach, not my dad.
I didn't see my dad much. My mom was with us every day, and she was the one that was happy, that showed, hey, this profession might be pretty cool to get into. So it was more my mom than it really was my dad.