Tim Beckman's dismissal from Illinois isn't a surprise, except maybe to him

CHICAGO -- Somewhere in central Illinois, or perhaps on a road exiting it, Tim Beckman has to be shaking his head.

"They buried the lede," the former University of Illinois coach might be thinking, again checking the news release of his long-awaited, yet still surprising firing.

To the eternal chagrin of this cockeyed optimist, it took the Illinois athletic department author 444 words to get to the positive news:

"He led Illinois to the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl in December 2014."

"How do you save that nugget for the final sentence," the fictional Beckman wonders. "More people stressing negativity, not helping the program."

And then he speeds away, driving into a ditch and finding a free Mercedes in the neighboring ditch, because that's how it works in the gilded life of a major college football coach.

Or how it usually works.

In its release, Illinois notes Beckman won’t be getting the $3.1 million owed to him, which made me do a double take. A college coach who doesn’t get a golden parachute? Is this life? Beckman’s not even getting the $743,000 he was owed if he got bought out.

Beckman got fired like a normal person. Imagine that.

After allegations of mistreatment by former player Simon Cvijanovic exploded in their faces, athletic director Mike Thomas backed Beckman, while also promising the review that would end up in Beckman's dismissal.

Illinois' external review into Beckman's troubled program revealed that Thomas "learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries. He also said in some instances student-athletes were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren't on the team."

In a conference call with reporters, Thomas said he was "shocked and angry."

Beckman is basically the reason college players need a union. Not that his tough love worked. Beckman went 12-25 in three years, just 4-20 in Big Ten games. He'll always have the Zaxby's bowl, though.

But even a would-be Gerry Faust thinks he's Knute Rockne. At Illinois' signing day, Beckman implored the reporters present to be more positive about his program, which just made people make fun of him even more.

Now Mr. Positive gets his wish, as everyone is pretty positive he deserved to be fired. That Thomas did it a week before the season opener makes the athletic department look bad, but that’s to be expected.

I’m only writing about Illinois, which aren’t a blip on my radar most years, because Beckman was fired.

Aside from a NCAA tournament run, the only time Illinois sports make a dent in Chicago, let alone the rest of the country, is when a coach is hired or fired and a narrative of hope bubbles up.

Illinois football has been a punch line for years, and Beckman's strident approach was just a steady stream of rim shots.

Who's next to fill the spot? Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck is the hot name. He's young, goofy (the rowing thing), intense, an ex-star receiver at Northern Illinois.

Bill Cubit, the interim coach, is a respected offensive mind. Plenty of retreads will get calls from whatever coaching firm is hired to run the search.

Thomas told reporters he gets to hire the new coach. It's a head-scratcher, and maybe it means he has job security -- for whatever reason.

Thomas has been a whiz at fundraising (see the State Farm Center), which is about 80 percent of the athletic director's job nowadays. But his football and women's basketball teams are disasters. Seven ex-basketball players sued the university in July for a variety of offenses, most related to an ex-assistant coach's behavior. A women's soccer player also sued the school for mishandling her concussion.

Leadership is in flux in Champaign. Illinois' provost and chancellor resigned in recent weeks amid scandal. The board of trustees has to be furious.

I'll tell you who looks good today: my guy John Groce.

Groce's popularity has taken the usual hits since he last made the second week of the NCAA tournament in his first season, albeit with former coach Bruce Weber's players. Since then, his teams (24-30 in three years of Big Ten play, 62-42 overall) have made back-to-back NIT appearances. There is no banner for that.

But unlike Beckman, Groce is a good guy, well-liked by everyone and has worked hard to run an upstanding program, even sacrificing wins for program discipline.

The coach of a highly touted out-of-state recruit, yet another one who had Illinois on his list -- only to sign elsewhere -- referred to Illinois as "the integrity program" recruiting his player.

Groce has two ESPN 100 players coming this season and a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, he hasn't landed any big-time Chicago recruits, and that's where Groce's star dims.

As someone who championed his hiring, I think Illinois would be best served keeping Groce for a long time. While I'm biased, I'm also a pragmatist.

Integrity or not, if they ever can Thomas, and Groce keeps missing the tournament, we might be talking about another coaching search soon enough.

Then, I guess, I'll have to write about Illinois again.