Billy Gonzales knows what a championship-caliber team looks like.
He was a part of two national title teams at Florida as the receivers coach under Urban Meyer, and he served as passing game coordinator this past season for LSU. Now Gonzales is taking over the Illinois offense as coordinator under head coach Tim Beckman and hopes to lead the Illini to a championship before he's through.
I caught up with Gonzales this week. Here are some of his thoughts on his new gig:
You had a pretty good gig before this. Was it just your previous relationship with Tim Beckman and the chance to call plays that made this job attractive?
Billy Gonzales: Definitely. I've known Coach Beckman for 12,13, 14 years now. He does a great job. He's very detailed and organized, very cool, clear, concise and direct in his teaching. When you have the opportunity to [call plays] and get a chance to step back and see who you'll be working for and with, that's the biggest thing. Coach Beckman has done a great job of hiring guys that are like him, with the same drive, the same direction. It's a good thing right now.
How do you feel about the chance to coach in the Big Ten after being in the SEC for a while?
BG: I'm pumped. I got my coaching start here in Illinois at a small Division III school, MacMurray College, as soon as I got out of college. I've been at Kent State and Bowling Green, so I've spent a fair amount of time in the Midwest, and I always admired this conference even when I was down in other conferences like the SEC. There's great football here. It's a tough conference and the teams all compete at a high level. So I'm excited to have the opportunity to work here and get going.
How would you describe your offensive philosophy?
BG: The biggest thing is, Coach Beckman had a fantastic offense at Toledo. Some of the things they did there, as far as upbeat tempo, spread, will be the things you hear us talk about. We'll have an offense that will be multiple, obviously, and will be able to get lined up quickly with the speed and tempo. The philosophy is, if you get 100 shots at a target, your chances of hitting it go up if you can get 30-to-40 more chances. So if we can get a bunch of plays called and score a bunch of points, that's ultimately our goal.
You spent a lot of time working under Urban Meyer. How much of his philosophy will you use in your offense?
BG: Urban is a fantastic coach who does a great job. I respect him a great deal and picked up a lot of things and learned a lot of things from Coach Meyer. Obviously, I come from the same tree as he does, along with coach Beckman. We're all from the same group, guys who have been around the style we're going to try to portray here at Illinois. There will be some things that will be similar, but at the same time we want to have our own direction here and continue to go with it. We have some great minds here on staff with coach [Chris] Beatty and Coach [Tim] Salem who's our running backs coach, Coach [Alex] Golesh who's worked with a great tempo and spread offense before and Coach [Luke] Butkus, who had a chance at Oregon to experience some of this. So we'll put our heads together and get on this thing and start knocking it out.
Switching to a different type of offense, how important will this next month or so be for the players to get in the film room and study the playbook?
BG: I think the conditioning part is going to be key. Any time you're going with an uptempo offense, you've got to do a great job of getting your guys lined up, and you've got to be in great shape. Coach Beckman ran a tempo offense at Toledo, so he understands what needs to be done. The biggest thing is making sure our players are fundamentally sound and that we do a great job making them better. It is going to be critical.
You had a busy January. Was it difficult to get over the BCS title game loss and jump right into a new job?
BG: It was hard. It's extremely hard. You know, when you have a great season like we did at LSU, that shouldn't be something that's forgotten. Did it sting? It stings bad. Nobody wants to lose at all, especially not that game. To get all the way to the top and not finish the way you want to, of course it stings and it hurts. But at the same time, you've got to look back and say, what did we do and not do? You cant change it, and you've got to move on, but it's a learning experience for us. You try to grow from it. Now our thought process turns to trying to win a Big Ten championship here.
How difficult was it for you to jump into recruiting at Illinois in mid-January, with only a couple of weeks to get to know prospects?
BG: It's hard no matter what for a staff to come in. Three or four of us didn't come until after our bowl games in January. You want to try to get players committed and continue to build relationships with in-state players. At the same time, all coaches have had relationships and were looking at players all year at other schools. Is it difficult? It is, but at the same time there's a lot of excitement about the university and about Coach Beckman.
The biggest thing as a new staff is to do your due diligence. You've got to get your players, but at the same time, don't rush. We were doing some research here the other day, looking at classes where coaches who had just come in signed players just to fill out a class, and seeing how many of them had really made it in the last four or five years. So don't rush is probably the biggest thing when you come into a new program and try to fill out your numbers.
What kind of reception did you get from recruits?
BG: I think they're pretty fired up. Everyone I talked to was very, very receptive and excited about our offense and how we plan on utilizing them. It's been overwhelmingly good. I can't tell you how excited I am to be here, and any time coaches are excited it starts to flow into recruiting and players start to get excited as well.
You're still going to work with receivers?
BG: That's what I am, where I feel my strong suit is. Each coach has an expertise level, and I feel very, very, very strong about what I do. I have a passion level and a love for coaching wide receivers, and now I will encompass the entire offense. I am excited to get going with this crew. We've got no seniors, a couple of juniors and some underclassmen, so you get a chance to mold them and make them yours, make them understand we're all in this thing together.
BG: First and foremost, they've got to be able to manage at that position. You better have a guy who understands. He's got to be able to communicate well, and he's got to be a leader. I've been a part of some really good programs, and when we had a great leader at that position, I think that's the No. 1 prerequisite. Because players rely on them. You've got quarterbacks on some teams that are asked to be the playmaker. You've got quarterbacks on some teams that have got a great group of guys around them so they're asked to manage. I think the biggest key for the quarterback is, he's got to be able to communicate effectively, he's got to be a leader because he is the voice that everybody will follow.
Do you prefer a mobile quarterback for this system?
BG: Obviously, you want to have a quarterback that can throw the ball the best he can possibly throw it. Obviously, you want to have a quarterback who can run as fast as he can. Those are all attributes that you want. But again, the biggest thing is to be a great leader, and you've got to be smart. Those are the things that are going to get you over the top. I've been very fortunate to be around some great quarterbacks over the years. Alex Smith at Utah, he was unbelievably smart and very mobile to run the offense we ran there. Obviously, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida. And I was around some quarterbacks at LSU that could sling the ball and were very athletic as well. But I always go back to, I want to have a guy who's an effective leader, a guy the team can follow, a guy that is the voice.