Tim Beckman: Fresh meet
The man went from table to table, greeting each customer. Some were caught off guard, setting down their gyros before shaking hands.
From behind the counter, Zorba's owner Matt Mortenson tried to figure out what was going on. He heard the booming voice but couldn't see the man's face.
Finally, Mortenson caught a glimpse and realized it wasn't some stranger off the street.
Nope, just the new Illinois football coach, Tim Beckman.
"It was awesome," Mortenson said.
After spending his first few months on the job dealing with football (hiring assistants and staff, recruiting, running spring practice), Beckman wants to get the word out about his program.
Like an old-school politician, Beckman's taking his message to the streets. He spent several days in downtown Champaign, going from business to business, shaking as many hands as possible.
On a sunny, late morning in May, wearing his orange "A New Era Beckons" T-shirt, Beckman dropped in on a couple of Campustown restaurants.
"He introduced himself and shook hands," Mortenson said. "He's got a great handshake, by the way. We sat there and talked for about five minutes."
Mortenson, a big Illinois fan, is used to seeing members of the volleyball team, volleyball coach Kevin Hambly and even former basketball coach Bruce Weber at Zorba's.
"He used to stop in all the time," Mortenson said. "He always tried to do it more subtly, jump in and jump out."
There was nothing subtle about Beckman's stop.
"I really liked the idea that he did that," Mortenson said. "I like the idea of him coming around here. It's neat to have interaction with the coaches and players. I think it's great for Campustown."
The drop-ins are only part of Beckman's spring and summer plan to improve his program's profile. He just finished an eight-stop Illini Caravan, visiting Bloomington, Chicago, Danville, Decatur, Peoria, Rockford, St. Louis and Springfield (he had to miss a ninth stop in the Quad Cities because of an illness).
Beyond the caravan, he's been out each week, talking to the Kiwanians, student groups and random citizens.
"He wanted to meet people," Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said. "As soon as spring ball was over that was his deal: to get out as much as possible. He's made that a high priority. If you talk to people at Toledo, he was very visible and out and had his players out, too."
During his glory days at Alabama, Bear Bryant mingled with the masses. He would speak at most of the larger touchdown clubs in the state. And he would attend private events for sponsors.
A good friend of Bob Hope, Bryant played in a small number of celebrity golf tournaments.
"But he didn't do nearly as much as the current coaches do," said Paul Finebaum, a national radio host and Alabama expert.
Same for former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. He visited with groups and clubs, but the requirements weren't the same as today.
There were other differences.
"The 'traditional media' didn't cover the events and follow them around like they do today, and there were no 'citizen journalists,' " said Bruce Madej, the former sports information director for the Wolverines.
Today, when a coach meets with the fans, it won't be long before pictures and comments start popping up on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
"The days he was in downtown Champaign, there were people posting things in Twitter and Facebook immediately," Brown said. "That just didn't happen before. It's a different era."
Check across the country and you will see all sorts of coaches going on all sorts of caravans. Penn State had a series of stops for new coach Bill O'Brien, who is trying to repair major damage done by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, coming off a 1-11 debut season, is participating in a six-city Tailgate Tour of Indiana and Chicago.
Early in his Illinois tenure, Beckman talked about getting involved on campus and in the community.
"He wanted to take the team to a women's basketball game, and he did," Brown said. "He wanted to bring them all to a men's basketball game. It's getting out and being visible, knowing that the Illinois football program is connected to the community. He wants people to see them."
The difference between Beckman and other coaches, Brown said, is that he was the one asking. Not the other way around.
"I've never been around a coach who came forward and said, 'I want to go out and meet the people. I want to go out and shake hands,' " Brown said.
When the coach shakes hands, it helps sell the program. And it helps sell tickets. Remember, Illinois didn't fill Memorial Stadium for a 2011 game against Ohio State despite a 6-0 record.
"That's part of developing a relationship and that connection," Brown said. "It's a lot easier when you're making connections with the fans when you get to meet them in person and shake their hands. That's part of his mantra. He lives it."
Beckman comes by it naturally, Brown said. Spend a few minutes with his parents, Dave and Pat, and you'll realize "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
"Both of their personalities matched his," Brown said. "They're very engaging people."
The Illinois players made fun of their new coach's ride earlier in the semester. After driving around a smallish car, especially by football player standards, Beckman has upgraded to a large Toyota SUV. The kind that looks like it could run over and crush a smaller car.
In late May, Beckman climbs in and points toward Springfield for his first trip to the Illinois capital city.
Beckman had been using a GPS device. But after it got him lost in Peoria for an extra hour or so, Beckman turned to MapQuest directions. Printed out on actual paper.
Beckman's car has the most important coaching staple: a charger for his phone. Which buzzes frequently. Assistant coach Luke Butkus checks in first, and the two discuss recruiting strategies. When he hangs up, Beckman mentions how thrilled he is to have Butkus on the staff.
Beckman has a long day planned in Springfield, starting with a stop at Saputo's. The downtown landmark at 8th and Monroe has been serving Italian food since 1948.
Illinois associate athletic director Howard Milton meets Beckman outside the banquet room, which has a separate entrance. Inside, the U.S. Bank-sponsored luncheon includes boosters from the city.
Beckman is joined in the room by Illinois football players Corey Lewis and Supo Sanni. New Illinois women's basketball coach Matt Bollant is also part of the program.
So is Isaac Chew, representing the men's basketball program. (Oops. Less than two weeks later, Chew will take a job at Marquette.)
But Beckman is the main attraction. He spends a few minutes chatting with the folks at his table. Then, emcee Mylas Copeland asks Beckman to talk to the rest of the room.
While the audience chows down on chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs and ravioli, Beckman provides a glimpse into his background and plans for the Illinois program.
"This is much bigger than me," he says. "That's what we're building. And that's what we're in the process of doing right now. So come to Champaign. We can't do it without you."
The luncheon breaks up after about an hour. Beckman moves on to his next stop: Franklin Middle School. In the gym, with "Go Falcons" signs on the wall, Beckman leads an athletic assembly.
"Who's got questions for Coach Beck?" he asks.
Apparently, everyone. The students fire question after question.
"How long have you been coaching?"
"What made you want to be a coach?"
"Favorite part about being a coach?"
"How did you end up at Illinois?"
"Did you play football?"
"Who is your favorite athlete?"
Fifteen minutes later, the Q&A ends. Beckman does a quick interview with a local TV station, then is out the door.
With Lewis and U.S. Bank vice president John Slayton riding along, Beckman drives to nearby St. John's Hospital. The visit isn't scheduled to start until 3 p.m., giving Beckman a few minutes to relax in the lobby. He talks with Hambly, who has joined the caravan for the final two stops.
Beckman and crew move from floor to floor of the children's unit, visiting with kids along the way. Normally, the pediatric rehab section is bustling, but not today.
Beckman shares a fist bump with 5-year-old Dylan Turasky, who is recovering from pneumonia. Later, he has his picture taken with 8-year-old Adam Anderson.
The last stop of the day will be the longest. Erin's Pavilion hosts the Illinois Caravan, where 350 fans and supporters pay $25 for finger food, soft drinks and a chance to hear the coaches. Beckman arrives at 4:45 and changes into a suit for the main event, which starts with a VIP reception in a smaller room.
Copeland, general manager of Springfield's Green Auto Plaza, again serves as emcee. The former Millikin football player is impressed by what he sees and hears from Beckman.
"Energy, enthusiasm and excitement was really what we saw," Copeland said. "I really like the things that he's doing in terms of 'Here's our goal. We're going to look at it every single day. And here's how we're going to get there.'
"I thought he was extremely driven. He seems to be right on point."
Could he work for Copeland?
"He would make an incredible car salesman," Copeland said. "Does he want to start this afternoon or tomorrow morning?"
Beckman's talk to the VIP group lasts a couple of minutes. He praises his staff and his players. With Beckman's high volume level, no microphone is necessary.
Beckman steps outside onto a lakeside patio for a short interview session with Springfield-area reporters. Mostly, they want to know about the status of his team.
Beckman moves to a string of tables filled with Illinois coaches: Beckman, Bollant, Chew, Hambly, women's gymnastics coach Kim Landrus, swimming coach Sue Novitsky and soccer coach Janet Rayfield. Each will have a turn at the microphone in front of the entire crowd.
"What a privilege it is to be seated up here with winners," Beckman said in his opening remarks. "That's what the profession is about."
At 7:30, the program ends. Beckman sticks around for another 15 minutes, signing autographs and posing for pictures. On the way out of the building, he visits with former Illini Bill Rucks.
One problem as he climbs back into the car for the 90-minute drive to Champaign: Beckman hasn't had a chance to eat. It will have to wait until he returns home.
You ... never ... know.
You never know when the 12-year-old's hand you shake is going to turn into the next Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson. You never know when the 50-year-old you chat up is thinking about buying 20 season tickets. You never know when the 70-year-old grandmother you sit with has a couple million burning a hole in her pocket.
"I still think it's about relationships," Beckman said. "It's about people."
Every conversation Beckman has with the public is an opportunity. One that not all coaches embrace.
"There are a lot of coaches who don't want to ever talk to anybody," Brown said. "He's not going to be shy about being up front and being available and talking to people and introducing himself. That's something that makes him unique."
Beckman likes the interaction with fans.
"I love doing this stuff," Beckman said. "It's a part of the job I enjoy. You get to talk about the university. You get to talk about your football program, talk about the kids, talk about my family."
During his time as an assistant, Beckman watched Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Mike Gundy make routine public appearances. When he took over at Toledo, he knew it would be part of his job.
When he agreed to become the Illinois coach, Beckman talked with athletic director Mike Thomas about his public role.
"This, to me, is being able to do some work before the football season starts to get a great fan base," Beckman said. "You know the importance of that."
Will it continue in the future or is this a one-shot, first-year deal?
"He's certainly going to be visible," Brown said. "Will he be walking up and down Green Street going into the restaurants? I don't know. That's always something if he does it, it will be great."