Jim Dey: Report reveals a bumbling Beckman

Jim Dey: Report reveals a bumbling Beckman

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Last December, University of Illinois football coach Tim Beckman and an assistant held meetings with four redshirt juniors to pressure them to forgo their scholarships for the following semester so they could be given to non-scholarship team members or incoming January recruits.

The meetings — not to mention the subsequent ugliness that occurred — were an unmitigated disaster.

By pressuring players to abandon in mid-year their full-year scholarship for "performance reasons" — the coach told them he didn't want them back as fifth-year seniors — Beckman violated NCAA rules.

Even worse, his action was unnecessary. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else in the athletic department, NCAA rules specifically allow graduating players to finish out their scholarship year after the season while simultaneously permitting coaches to give their scholarships to someone else.

"Student-athletes who graduate in December can be removed from the team roster and receive scholarship aid for the spring term without 'counting' against the 85-scholarship limit," read the report into the UI football program prepared by a team of lawyers from the Chicago law firm of Franczek Radelet.

The coaches' effort to pressure players into giving up their scholarships was a secondary issue in the internal investigation into Beckman's leadership of the team. Medical issues — specifically allegations that Beckman discouraged players from reporting injuries and interfered with the medical evaluation process — were the chief focus.

But the UI's handling of the scholarship issue is important as well. It reveals the dark underbelly of the high-stakes business of college sports, particularly the lengths to which coaches will go to correct recruiting mistakes by trying to move lesser performers out and bring better ones in.

In this case, four players scheduled to graduate in December 2014 intended to return the following semester to take additional undergraduate courses or pursue graduate work.

Mistakenly thinking the four counted against their scholarship limit, Beckman wanted them out.

"One of the four players refused to sign the form in multiple meetings, but graduated in December 2014 and did not enroll in classes during the spring 2015 semester. Two other players expressed reluctance to sign and a desire not to schedule graduation in December, but they eventually signed the form when encouraged to do so by the coaches," the report states. "One explained ... that he did not want to be difficult and wanted to be able to go to the bowl game with the rest of the team. Neither of these players knew that they could stay on scholarship if they did not sign the form. The fourth player received pressure to sign the form."

Circumstances went further downhill when one of the players told Beckman he had reconsidered and wanted to take classes the next semester.

The coach's response was that of a typical tyrant of the gridiron.

The report states that Beckman:

— called the player a "liar" for "changing his agreement."

— ordered underlings to clean out the player's locker, causing "some contents to be thrown away."

— barred the player from traveling with the team to the bowl game in Dallas.

— told the player to tell his roommate, a walk-on, that "the scholarship the roommate expected to receive was no longer available because of the player's decision not to graduate."

Investigators report Beckman said he did not recall "taking such actions." But an athletic department employee, Jason Lener, said Beckman later told him that he had "mishandled the situation."

These anecdotes underscore the hard feelings generated by the coach's determination to force the four graduating players out.

Major college football is a numbers game, and one of the biggest is 85 — the scholarship limit set by the NCAA.

Players are awarded four one-year scholarships during their careers. Once awarded, the grants cannot be revoked in mid-year unless there are extenuating circumstances, like academic ineligibility. If players redshirt, they can be invited back for a fifth year on scholarship at the coach's discretion.

Players are encouraged to attend summer school so they can pile up extra credits. A redshirt year can allow players to pile up additional credits that permit them to graduate before their eligibility has expired.

Keeping track of players, their academic status, who's leaving and who's coming is complicated.

"Spreadsheets were compiled and exchanged over a period of months to track student-athlete academic progress, graduation expectations and the potential number of slots that would be available in January," the report states.

The coaching staff's ignorance of the counting rules hugely complicated that process. That, compounded by the relentless pressure to win, contributed to Beckman & Co.'s decision to pressure players to relinquish their scholarships while withholding from players knowledge of their absolute right to stay.

The player who changed his mind did not relent. His mother contacted UI compliance personnel while the player informed Beckman by text that he planned to file a grievance. Beckman reversed his indefensible stance on Dec. 22, 2014, and the player returned for the next semester, graduating in May.

At the same time, the report states, "no one in the athletic department followed up with the other three players," instead waiting to see if they appealed. None did.

That inaction raises the question of whether UI compliance people, laboring under their mistaken understanding of the counting rules, purposely decided not to inform the three of their right to enroll for the next semester.

Meanwhile, Beckman couldn't let it go, even though he had acknowledged mishandling the matter. At a team meeting to hand out scholarships to walk-ons, he told team members he would have had another one to give but for the action of an unidentified "liar."

"The players understood to whom Beckman was referring," the report states.

The former coach later told investigators he didn't remember making that statement.

It's unclear how the UI athletic department could have labored under such a grotesque misunderstanding of the counting rules. But that ignorance was reflected in bullying behavior violating NCAA rules that forbid revoking scholarships in mid-year based on nonperformance.

NCAA Bylaw is written in stilted language. But the report states that it means "the four redshirt juniors who were slated to graduate in 2014 could have remained on scholarship without 'counting,' as long as they graduated," the report states.

The report states that, although the coaches' pressure on the four players "did not afford the football program any competitive advantage ... (the athletic department) reported these potential violations to the NCAA." It also states that the athletic department has "taken steps to ensure that similar incidents do not occur in the future," including "using a new relinquishment form, which includes information about NCAA rules and players' rights to remain on scholarship."

Jim Dey, a New-Gazette staff member, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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leftylib wrote on November 11, 2015 at 8:11 am

Wow, what dispicable actions.  Also, how dumb do you have to be to not know the scholarship rules?  You mean Beckman or anybody close to him didn't know these rules?  He could have saved people alot of heartache regarding that issue.  He got what he deserved.  Good bye and good riddance

Illini '73 wrote on November 11, 2015 at 8:11 am

And does anyone really believe that with all this going on, Mike Thomas didn't know about it?

If he didn't, he deserved to be fired for being so out of touch.  If he did, he should have gone when Beckman was fired.

Kermit wrote on November 11, 2015 at 8:11 am

I agree Thomas had to know.  

All of those students that had issue, and reported him were right.  

stingray1970 wrote on November 11, 2015 at 9:11 am
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Regardless of the outcome, Beckman got paid.  He's laughing all the way to the bank.

msquared wrote on November 11, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Beckman did not get paid when fired 

danaqc02 wrote on November 11, 2015 at 9:11 am

This article adds more substance to the observation that Mike Thomas was in over his head the minute he arrived on the Champiagn-Urbana Campus.  

Illini '73 wrote on November 11, 2015 at 10:11 am

Just to make it clear...

It is true that "Players are awarded four one-year scholarships during their careers."  But, it has not always been this way.

Before January 2015 scholarships had to be renewed each year by the coach and AD.    If a player was injured and couldn't play or if he/she just wasn't performing up to the coach's expectations, the scholarship could be non-renewed

This is to clear up the misconception many people have had about the 4 year "free ride" athletes have.  They now do, but for decades did not.

Note:  The term "free ride" is a misnomer.  Ask any football player who has gone through two-a-day practices in August.

andrewscheinman wrote on November 11, 2015 at 3:11 pm

"That inaction raises the question of whether UI compliance people, laboring under their mistaken understanding of the counting rules, purposely decided not to inform the three of their right to enroll for the next semester."

How much money do we spend on these "compliance people" for them to be this ignorant?  Was it plain stupidity, or wilfull ignorance, of the Wise "I didn't think personal emails were subject to FOIA" type?

More to the point, are we ever going to get anwers to these questions, or do we just get multi-million dollar whitewashed reports instead?  Nothing's going to change if no one has the guts to do a real examination of these things, athletics, the Wise/Adesida debacle, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Wilson?  Killeen?  How 'bout it? 

Manscape wrote on November 11, 2015 at 6:11 pm

"How much money do we spend on these 'compliance people'....well, YOU don't spend a dime since they're paid from the DIA budget. You aren't owed anything...it's the players and their families that deserve answers. Unless you are writing million dollar checks to the DIA, which I highly doubt since you seem to spend all your time filing FOIA requests due to your fascination with certain people in the research park (and last time I checked that didn't pay much), you are owed nothing.

Brad Cortright wrote on November 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm

So student and state money never goes to support athletics?  When I was a student, we were required to pay an athletic fee for upkeep on Memorial Stadium which was used only for football.  Is this still the case?  If so, then money is being co-mingled and your argument is invalid.