It's been quite a year for Illinois. The most recent development for the Fighting Illini is Saturday's firing of head football coach Bill Cubit, which came on new athletic director Josh Whitman's first day on the job. Lovie Smith is reportedly likely to replace Cubit, and that's only one element of an all-around weird coaching saga.
Then again, "weird" is pretty much what Illinois does these days. Here's a recap of most (but, who knows, maybe not all) of the Illini's top-to-bottom unusualness from the past year.
April 8, 2015
Coming off a 6-7 season and a Heart of Dallas Bowl loss, the hits start coming immediately. Star receiver Mike Dudek, the best player on the team during his freshman year in 2014, tears his ACL during a spring practice non-contact drill. He'll miss the season, sitting out along with his 1,000-plus yards and six touchdowns from the prior season.
May 10, 2015
A former player accuses head coach Tim Beckman of abuse. Former lineman Simon Cvijanovic says Beckman prevented him from getting proper care for his injured knee, which resulted in Beckman needing lifelong therapy to deal with his injury. He also said Illinois' trainer wasn't a licensed medical professional in Illinois, yet Beckman didn't fire him.
Despite his upperclass status, Beckman didn't invite Cvijanovic to the team's senior banquet, he says. When the player went to Beckman's office to ask why, he says the coach kicked him out of the room.
May 13, 2015
More players join a growing chorus of anti-Beckman sentiment. "Beckman made it very hard for me to go home and see my dad," former Illinois wide receiver Darius Millines tweets. His father, who had cancer, was celebrating his 50th birthday. Another former player, Nick North, tells Illinois' student newspaper Beckman "takes the cake as the worst coach I ever met" and that the coach repeatedly drug-tested him while he was out with an injury, in search of a justification to kick him off the team.
Beckman puts out a statement defending himself and says it's "disappointing" that Cvijanovic has "chosen this path to air his concerns." Athletic director Mike Thomas throws his support behind Beckman.
August 28, 2015
Illinois fires Beckman a week before the start of the season. Cubit, a former Western Michigan head coach, is installed as the interim head coach at Illinois. The program's announcement lends credence to claims of serious mistreatment:
During a preliminary briefing from the external reviewers, 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. He 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.
The Illini start their season against Kent State on Sept. 5.
November 7, 2015
Illinois blows out Purdue to move to 5-4 in Cubit's first nine games as the head coach. The Illini are just a win from becoming eligible for a bowl appearance.
November 9, 2015
Illinois fires Thomas, the athletic director. Paul Kowalczyk is the interim director. Here's an explanation from The Champaign Room, our Illinois blog:
Thomas was entering his fifth year as head of the athletic department after his hiring from the University of Cincinnati in 2011. Highlights of Thomas's tenure included a massive renovation of the State Farm Center, a smaller renovation of Memorial Stadium, and a rise to national prominence in several winter and spring sports.
Thomas is being fired in large part because of the allegations levied against the Illini football and women's basketball teams by student-athletes. Those allegations of mistreatment led to an extensive report done by the University and law firm Franczek Radelet. ...
Thomas was also fired in part due to his hiring of Tim Beckman and Matt Bollant, the two head coaches implicated in the allegations by students. Bollant was found mostly innocent of any wrongdoing, but Beckman was fired by the athletic department in August for his mistreatment of student-athletes.
November 28, 2015
Illinois gives Cubit a two-year contract extension, apparently locking him into place as the permanent head coach. It's the biggest personnel move Kowalczyk makes during his tenure in charge of the department, but it's also pretty weird. A two-year extension staves off lame-duck status for at most one year, making it a lukewarm gesture of confidence.
Let Peter Bailey-Wells of The Daily Illini, the school's student paper, explain:
This was a poor decision. Not because of Cubit, and not even because of the length of the contract, but because of something interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk said just before Saturday's game that the decision they made was "not ideal, but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program."
You bet it wasn't ideal. Giving Cubit a two-year extension means being scared that he might do a bad job. Illinois athletics doesn't need scared right now – whoever the new coach was going to be needed the full-throated support of the administration, and Cubit didn't get that. And that's not even considering the fact that he might not be the best man for this job.
Cubit is to make a relatively low $1.2 million in salary, with just one year "mostly guaranteed." There's an escape hatch in the form of a buyout for the second year, however.
November 28, 2015
With the ink barely dry on Cubit's new deal, Illinois loses its final regular season game to Northwestern, capping a run of three losses in a row to close the year. The Illini miss bowl eligibility by a single win.
February 16, 2016
Illinois hires Whitman to be Thomas' permanent replacement as athletic director. Whitman, 37, comes to the job with deep Illinois bona-fides. He played tight end for the Illini and was an academic all-American in 1999, before enrolling in Illinois' law school. He had taken over as Washington's athletic director in 2014. Now, he makes a homecoming.
March 5, 2016
Whitman officially starts in his post as the Illini's athletic director.
March 5, 2016, around noon
Whitman announces Illinois is firing Cubit. It sure seems like Cubit didn't see it coming, either.
Great Meeting Josh Whitman today. We are excited about your leadership. Go ILLINI— Bill Cubit (@CoachCubit) February 18, 2016
March 5, 2016, later afternoon
Word leaks that Illinois is closing in fast on Lovie Smith as Cubit's replacement, and maybe Whitman's been playing chess while we've played checkers all along.
March 7, 2016, early