Bill Cubit: Illini savior?

Bill Cubit: Illini savior?

CHAMPAIGN — Bill Cubit needed to find a bathroom.

Options abounded in the visiting locker room at Memorial Stadium.

But the Western Michigan head football coach wasn’t particularly interested in using one there before his team opened the 2012 season against Illinois.  

“Before the games, the restrooms are so tight with 60-some kids in there,” Cubit said. “Very rarely do I go to the restroom in the locker room. I always try to go outside and find one.”

So he went looking for one.

Walked through Memorial Stadium.

Into the recruiting lounge tucked just past the north end zone.

Took a glance at the massive weightroom just below the mural of former Illinois players and coaches.

Spotted Illinois running backs coach Tim Salem, a coaching friend. There’s not many coaches Cubit, a man who has coached 28 seasons in college football and nine seasons as a high school head coach, doesn’t know.

He asked Salem where the closest bathroom was. Found it.

Moved on to his Western Michigan team but wondered where the Illinois coaching offices were.

Now he knows. It’s a path he has grown familiar with the last six months since Tim Beckman hired him in January.

He walks up the two flights of stairs, past the offices of fellow assistant coaches like Alex Golesh, Al Seamonson, A.J. Ricker and Mike Bellamy, makes a left and finds his office, which is roughly 10 feet from Beckman’s workspace.

Sitting in his rather bare office in late July at Memorial Stadium, with a depth chart posted on one wall and an Illinois football sign hanging above a blank white board behind his desk, Cubit spins the stories. Back from a three-week vacation he made to Florida in early July, freshly tanned and full of enough rounds of golf to last until winter, the stresses of coaching don’t crease the 59-year-old Cubit’s face.

At least not yet. After all, Illinois hasn’t played a game yet using Cubit’s play calls.
Beckman wants Cubit to turn Illinois’ woebegone offense from 2012 into a better product this fall. He has confidence in Cubit’s ability. Hence, why he brought in his former adversary in the Mid-American Conference to replace the co-coordinator strategy utilized last year with Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales.

“Bill is an outstanding coach,” Beckman said. “He’s called a lot of plays. He’s coached quarterbacks his whole life. He’s got great experience in play-calling and great experience in what he wants to evolve his offense around.”

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Easy to say now.

Illinois hasn’t throw a pass or run the ball yet against an opposing defense. Skepticism exists.

If the spring game offensive numbers (757 total yards) were a fluke. Or a byproduct of a poor defensive showing by Illinois.

If a failed MAC coach can get it done. In the Big Ten. One of the few conferences he hasn’t coached in.

Cubit’s son Ryan, a former quarterback at Rutgers and at Western Michigan who threw for 273 yards during Western Michigan’s 30-27 loss at Illinois in 2004, joked about the topic shortly after his dad started at Illinois.

“I think I have one conference left out there, and that’s the ACC where I haven’t coached at,” Bill Cubit said with a laugh. “At Western, we played Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. We played most of these teams, so we’re kind of familiar with a lot of them.”

Cubit realizes the Illinois fan base might have its doubts: Will bringing in the offensive coordinator change the fortunes of a program that has sported a 61-95 record this century?   

But he’s not planning on leaving any time soon. Unless he’s forced to. Like he was at his last stop. Western Michigan fired Cubit after eight seasons, with the move coming immediately after the Broncos’ 29-23 loss to Eastern Michigan in the regular season finale Nov. 17.

“I’m in here for the long haul,” Cubit said. “I’m not in here as a steppingstone for something else. I want this to be my last job.”

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Even if his six months so far in Champaign-Urbana have seen a devastating loss for Cubit: the death of his father.

Bill Cubit Sr. died June 6 at the age of 82.

The former insurance adjuster wouldn’t go easily, though.  

Three years ago, Cubit’s wife, Nancy, saw her husband after a Western Michigan game. His father didn’t have long to live, she told her husband. Three months. At most.

“Three-and-a-half years later, he went,” Cubit said. “That’s the way he was. He’s a classic.”

Consider this. Father and son spoke this spring about the upcoming schedule for Illinois. Seeing how the Illini don’t leave the state for the first month of the season (three home games and a Sept. 14 game against Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago), the younger Cubit had an idea. He wanted his father to stay for the entire month with he and Nancy in Urbana.

“He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Send me a schedule card,’ ” Cubit recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, you can get it on the Internet.’ ”

Bill Cubit Sr. wasn’t big on the Internet. If he knew Illinois’ schedule, he didn’t let on. At his funeral June 10 in Glen Mills, Pa., his oldest son paused for a moment by his father’s casket. Slipped an Illinois schedule card in there. And had one final word with his dad.

“I told him, ‘Just as a reminder, make sure you’re watching every game,’ ” Cubit said with a smile. “I wish he was around here more for my kids and my grandkids. For me, personally, I know he’s going to be there. He’s got the schedule.”

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Cubit is the oldest of seven children Bill and Loretta Cubit raised in Sharon Hill, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.

Four brothers. Two sisters. All played sports. One brother, Mark, played college basketball at Vermont before transferring to Syracuse and playing for Jim Boeheim in the late 1970s.

Family was important in the Cubit household growing up. If Bill wanted to bring a friend or teammate from one of his football, basketball or baseball teams over to the house for dinner, great. The more, the merrier.

“My parents are just unbelievable people,” Cubit said. “We didn’t have that much, but we had enough. You just went from one sport to the other. I grew up in a great little town where there were about five or six fathers who would coach you from football to basketball to baseball. They were the greatest influences in my life. I would have my dad coach me, but I also had other people coaching me. It was one big circle.”

Cubit’s childhood didn’t consist of a nomadic lifestyle like his has become since he started coaching at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., in 1975. Illinois is the 13th coaching stop for Cubit in the last four decades.

His father took a job about two hours away from Sharon Hill in Wilkesboro, Pa., when Bill was a senior in high school. But he didn’t move the family.

“He actually bought a trailer so he could stay there during the week, and then he’d travel back and forth,” Cubit said. “Baseball was my best sport growing up. One time he said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make your baseball game.’ I can remember saying, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it.’ I hit a triple, and I dove headfirst into third base. I was dusting myself off, and there he was behind the fence. He would never miss a game.”

Same held true when Cubit played college football at Delaware. The only game Dad missed was when the Blue Hens played in the 1974 NCAA Division II national title game against Central Michigan. The game was played in Sacramento, Calif., and although the trip was too far to make, his dad watched on TV.

Family still is important for Bill and Nancy, who started dating in 10th grade and were married shortly after college. The couple has three children — Stacey, 34; Sheri, 32; and Ryan, 30 — and three grandchildren.

He still calls his 80-year-old mother. Every day.

“She looks great,” Cubit said. “I remember at my dad’s funeral, so many people came by and said, ‘Man, your mom never ages.’ ”

It’s why Cubit doesn’t mind receiving four text messages in a 45-second span from his 4-year-old granddaughter, Kyley. All contain random letters. No real meaning. Obviously, Kyley had hijacked Stacey’s phone.

“I love being with my kids and my grandkids,” Cubit said while responding to the incoherent text message. “That’s my favorite thing. Family is just so huge to me.”

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What’s huge in the minds of Illinois fans is seeing an improved offense in 2013.

Nathan Scheelhaase is the team’s starting quarterback. Beckman made that point clear during Big Ten Media Days, and while Cubit has had only a handful of spring practices to work with the fifth-year senior, he has implemented some changes to Scheelhaase’s game.

“He’s definitely moved the launch point of where he wants me to hold the ball as I’m dropping back,” Scheelhaase said. “The biggest thing is he wants me to get it to a place where I can get it out quicker. That’s been great to have some of those mechanics. He’s worked with all of us on our footwork and the way he expects to see us drop back just to be able to see the field more and have more balance.”

Quick, quick, quick. Cubit wants Illinois to play at a faster pace. Not only should it help an offense that finished 122nd out of 124 teams in average yards per game (only Maryland and Massachusetts finished behind Illinois’ 294.2 average) get more plays in, it should limit the chances opposing teams have of hitting Scheelhaase. Illinois gave up 39 sacks last year, worst in the Big Ten and 111th in the country.

“I keep telling the offensive line, they took somewhat of a bad rap because you can’t ask offensive linemen to play in that amount of space and hold the ball that long,” Cubit said. “You can’t have the quarterback hold it that long. You’ve got to get a different type of passing game to fit in.”

Right tackle Corey Lewis said after watching some of Cubit’s teams at Western Michigan — which beat Illinois 23-17 in 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit before losing 23-20 in 2011 and 24-7 last year — and then experiencing his offense this spring, he’s eager for the increased action.

“I found myself playing 80 snaps in the spring game, and when I saw that — and I missed some series due to getting other guys in — it didn’t really feel like that,” the sixth-year senior said. “That shows you how up-tempo his offense is when you’re not even realizing you’re getting 80 plays, which is a lot of plays in a college football game.”

Yes, it is. Illinois only topped 80 plays once (82 against Indiana) in 12 games last season, averaging 66 plays per game.

“To be able to say we’re going to play faster is one thing, but it’s a totally different mind-set,” Scheelhaase said. “All of a sudden, when a receiver catches a ball, he can’t point up to the stands or give a thumbs up to the crowd. It doesn’t look like that. It’s throw the ball to the ref, get lined up, see the signal and get the next play. That’s something that’s very, very important is just that mind-set in general for our whole offense.”

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Cubit finished his eight-year stint in Kalamazoo, Mich., with a winning record. At 51-47, it wasn’t glamorous. His Broncos didn’t have a BCS-busting season that led some of his contemporaries in the MAC like Urban Meyer, Jerry Kill, Brady Hoke, Darrell Hazell and yes, Beckman, to move on to higher-profile head coaching gigs.

“We had success pretty early there,” Cubit said. “Then it just catches up to you. I had absolutely fantastic coaches. You just couldn’t keep them. There was no money. They just keep on going until you’re constantly coaching coaches, and recruiting becomes an issue because of continuity.”

David Drew, who covers Western Michigan for MLive Media Group, said the news was mixed when Cubit was let go.

“There was a feeling that the program had become stagnant, and from that aspect people were happy to see a change, and there were others who felt WMU had lost a very good coach,” Drew said. “The majority of people, even those who were glad to see a change, had no ill feelings towards Cubit as a person and member of the community. Cubit was a respected member of the community and did a lot of work to give back.”

Cubit coached in three bowl games at Western Michigan. Lost all three. He coached Minnesota Vikings wideout Greg Jennings during his tenure with the Broncos, along with quarterbacks Tim Hiller and Alex Carder (the duo holds 13 school records) and standout wide receiver Jordan White (he led the nation with 1,911 receiving yards in 2011).

“Cubit should have no problem getting the Illini offense moving,” Drew said. “He is very good at developing quarterbacks and coming up with excellent offensive game plans. His offenses at Western Michigan had new wrinkles and gadgets all the time that helped throw defenses off.”

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For all his offensive prowess at Western Michigan, Cubit has experienced the other side. The struggles he had at times in two seasons under former Illinois offensive coordinator Buddy Teevens when Teevens coached Stanford. The woeful Rutgers teams in the early part of the 21st century before Greg Schiano rebuilt the Scarlet Knights. A poor year as Missouri’s offensive coordinator under the late Larry Smith in 2000.

The rebuilding process at Illinois doesn’t seem to faze him.

“Every job I’ve ever taken,” Cubit said, “has been one where they haven’t been very good on the offensive side of the ball.”

Cubit has culled information from some of the brightest offensive minds out there.
Bill Walsh was a regular in meeting rooms during Cubit’s two seasons in Palo Alto. He has picked the brains of offensive gurus like former NFL offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose path at Florida just missed Cubit’s lone season there in 1989 when he was the Gators’ quarterbacks coach.

“I think Steve Spurrier could be, if not the top, one of the top college coaches because Steve’s won at places that they’ve never won at,” Cubit said. “If you look at Steve, everybody thinks he’s just the Fun and Gun, but he just adapts. That’s what we try to do. We’ve got a lot of different formations. You want to find out what your personnel can do right and then find matchups on the other side.”

Cubit doesn’t have long ties with Beckman. They first met at a MAC coaches meeting when Beckman landed the head coaching job at Toledo after the 2008 season.

“When you’re a head coach, you’re really competitive, so when a guy from Toledo walks in and you’ve got to play him every year, it’s hard to like him initially,” Cubit said with a laugh. “I’m one of those guys that usually sits back. There were two guys in the league who I have a lot of respect for, and I asked them about him. They said, ‘He’s really a good, good guy.’ Beck’s been great. He’s been absolutely fantastic, both him and his wife. They make you feel at home.”

Cubit knows he’s in the twilight of his coaching career. Time in Florida and on the golf course awaits once the die-hard Phillies fan — he still hasn’t fully recovered from the fastball Mitch Williams threw Joe Carter before Carter hit a walkoff home run to win the 1993 World Series — is done at Illinois. All that retirement talk, however, is put on hold.

“I spend a couple weeks down in Florida, I get antsy,” he said. “I just love being with the kids. I enjoy them so much. They’re really good kids and just to see the hope that they have — it’s hard to do at times with so much Internet talk — but they’re out there trying. You have such a desire or passion because they only got one shot. I tell coaches all the time, ‘You may have 40 years of coaching, but these kids have one shot at this thing.’ If you don’t give 150 percent to these kids, that’s wrong.”

These guys tried to save Illini

When Bill Cubit either roams the sidelines or calls in plays from the press box — Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn’t decided how he’d like to utilize the coaching veteran on game days yet for the 2013 season — he’ll add his name to a lengthy list of previous Illinois offensive coordinators. Here’s a look at the past 10 who have filled that role, courtesy beat writer MATT DANIELS:

Season(s)    Name
2012    Chris Beatty, Billy Gonzales

The co-coordinator setup never caught on. Beatty is now a wide receivers coach at Wisconsin, with Gonzales holding the same position at Mississippi State.  

2010-11    Paul Petrino
Bobby’s younger brother is now the head coach at Idaho after helping Nathan Scheelhaase to two productive seasons after spending last season as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.  

2009    Mike Schultz
The longtime TCU assistant never fit in during his lone season in Champaign-Urbana as the Illini finished 3-9 and missed a bowl appearance for the second consecutive year. Schultz could make a return trip to Memorial Stadium. He’s in his third year as an assistant at Texas State, which plays at Illinois in 2014.

2005-08    Mike Locksley
He opened up the Washington, D.C., schools to Ron Zook but did not fare well in his two-plus seasons coaching New Mexico (2-26 record) before getting fired midway through the 2011 season. He’s now in his second stint as an assistant coach at Maryland, where he will begin 2013 as the Terrapins’ offensive coordinator.

2005    Larry Fedora
The second-year North Carolina coach actually never coached a game with Illinois. Shortly after Zook hired him to run his offense, Fedora left to take the same position at Oklahoma State.

2004    Dan Roushar
Coached at Illinois under two different coaches (Lou Tepper and Ron Turner), but was Turner’s offensive coordinator his final season. Mainly in name only as Turner still helped call the offense. Roushar made stops at Cincinnati (2005-06) and Michigan State (2007-12) after getting let go at Illinois and is now the running backs coach with the New Orleans Saints.

1997-98    Buddy Teevens
First man in charge of offense under Turner, Teevens oversaw a unit that scored more than 30 points twice in 22 games. The former Tulane coach before he arrived at Illinois, Teevens went on to coach Stanford for three seasons (2002-04) and will enter his ninth year as Dartmouth’s head coach this fall.

1995-96    Paul Schudel
The former head coach at Ball State ended his first season at Illinois responsible for the last tie in program history (a 3-3 deadlock at Wisconsin to end the 1995 season). He went on to coach at Virginia after his sputtering offense in 1996 helped lead to Tepper’s ouster and then spent three seasons (2001-03) as head coach at Central Connecticut State.

1993-94    Greg Landry
Former Detroit Lions quarterback and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator who helped entice Chris Redman to Illinois before Redman bolted for Louisville never meshed well during his two seasons with Tepper. He spent the ’95 season as the Lions’ quarterbacks coach before he retired from coaching.