When a coach is bought out with two years left on his contract, change for the better is the logical interpretation of such a move.
But when former head coach Ron Zook was fired, the reported whereabouts of athletic director Mike Thomas and lack of interest in the program left few candidates on the table.
Was it really that surprising for a program that has a losing identity?
The reported candidate — Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin — appeared interested, but essentially leveraged the Illini to pressure his current employer to up the ante, which the Aggies did.
Sumlin would’ve been a great fit for no reason other than he would’ve brought his aerial attack offense to Champaign, or what I like to call an identity.
Though with a more-talented SEC-caliber roster, Sumlin has the Aggies averaging 44.8 points a game (third in the nation), and his team will play Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4.
Thomas eventually hired Tim Beckman, who started changing the way things were done from the first day.
But the change that he failed to make was on the field.
The 2012 season was an absolute mess, and instead of improving on things like a six-game losing streak and forgetting the score, Beckman and his team lost nine straight and had some epic sideline incidents of their own — i.e. tobacco gate at Wisconsin and Beckman getting knocked down at Northwestern. Cue the Chumbawamba.
I mean come on, one of the worst seasons in Illinois history ended with a safety — an ending almost too storybook of how bad the season was.
Departing talent and an improved nonconference slate won’t make the second season of the “New Era” much easier, but developing an identity on the field and a system that players can be plugged into is one way to start turning things around.
There are identities among the nation’s best, as well as average teams: Oregon loves speed, while Navy lives and dies with the triple option.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban is so good at reloading his smash-mouth, stout defensive mentality that he’s had two Heisman winners and the same number of national championships in the last three years.
Even though the team is no better than Illinois, Indiana even has the reputation of a high-powered offense. Indiana football has an identity. The Hooisers don’t win, but with that identity, their games are watchable.
Point is, more than likely, changes will be made within the Illinois football staff and one of the changes that needs to be made is to develop an identity around the program so that when they take the field on Saturdays, fans know what they’re going to see.
Before head coach Mike Leach was fired, Texas Tech fans knew they were going to see an offensive explosion each time their team took the field.
Under Zook, future NFL running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure had the Illini first in the Big Ten in rushing twice and in the top five the other three years.
Beckman adopted a defensive unit that was ranked seventh in the nation in 2011, and he has a defensive background.
It seemed like it would be a good transition, but the 2012 season said differently.
Signing day now is the focus point for the Illinois coaching staff, and there’s one particular commit that can help Beckman change the identity starting next season.
Assuming four-star quarterback Aaron Bailey signs on the dotted line in the spring, a new blueprint could be drawn up or he might even be the blueprint. Who knows?
If 2012 proved anything, it was that the transition from one head coach to another can be seamless like it was in College Station, Texas, or rocky like it was in Champaign. Each one is different.
Forgetting 2012 will be hard, but establishing an identity is the quickest way for Beckman to overcome a bad start and win back the fan base.
Dan is a senior in Media. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @WELINandDEALIN.