Illinois head coach Tim Beckman yells to his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Illinois won 47-33. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, right, celebrates with fans after Illinois defeated Northwestern 47-33 in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — After a season of speculation about whether he would lose his job, Illinois coach Tim Beckman will be back for 2015, athletic director Mike Thomas said Sunday.
Beckman apparently secured his job with a 47-33 victory at Northwestern on Saturday and three wins in the team's final five games. That made the Illini (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) bowl eligible in Beckman's third season and apparently signified the kind of progress Thomas said he needed to see in the football program.
"Our student-athletes have played their best football of the season down the stretch of a tough schedule that included nine bowl-eligible opponents. It's my expectation that with the upcoming bowl and another offseason of development, that Tim's continued leadership will keep Fighting Illini Football moving forward and even more competitive in the conference and nationally," Thomas said in a brief statement.
Beckman hopes he can build on the six wins.
"We all understand that this is a work in progress and that we need to continue moving forward in a positive way," he said in an emailed statement. "I'm very proud of our six wins so far this season and the toughness we showed down the stretch."
"I know this program's gotten better since we first started it — in every way, not just on the football field," he said. "I challenge the negativity; it's about building something, to me. We can always point fingers, but that's the easy way out. Instead, change, be positive, for the kids' sake. Be positive for them, don't worry about me."
The team's bowl destination is undetermined.
Illinois is 12-24 under Beckman. His contract expires in January 2017. Sunday's announcement didn't include a raise or contract extension.
Beckman took over at Illinois after Ron Zook was fired following a 6-6 season in 2011. But Zook's team finished with six straight regular-season losses.
Major challenges remain, on the field and off.
Illinois' defense has been a problem, giving up 33.9 points and 464.3 yards a game, including 249.6 yards on the ground. All of those are Big Ten worsts. The Illini also struggled to create turnovers, forcing 18 in 12 games, five of them in the Saturday win over Northwestern.
And many fans appear to have already voted with their wallets.
Attendance has been dropping since the Zook years, from 61,707 for every home game in 2008, the season after a surprise trip to the Rose Bowl, to an announced average of 41,549 this season. Only Purdue and Northwestern drew fewer fans among Big Ten schools, and actual attendance was often much smaller than the announced figures in 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium.
But Beckman's 2014 team avoided the collapse that cost Zook his job.
After they appeared to hit rock bottom with a 38-27 home loss to the Boilermakers on Oct. 4, the Illini rebounded with wins over Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern.
The offense has been fairly effective, scoring 26.6 points a game —eighth in the conference. Quarterback Wes Lunt should be back, too, though he sat out the final two games of the season after struggling in his return from a broken leg.
And Beckman's players rallied around him as speculation about his future grew.
"There are a lot of naysayers out there, and for us to get that win today was, I'm sure, a huge weight off of his shoulders," running back Devin Church said.
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