FRANKFORT – It’s tough to miss Tim Beckman.
The new Illinois football coach stands 10 feet from the football field entrance of Lincoln-Way East High School, the first of his seven satellite camps this week for high school players. He offers hard-squeeze handshakes, high-volume welcomes and hearty laughs as about 80 teenage campers arrive for a three-hour session in shorts, T-shirts and cleats.
It’s not yet 8:30 a.m.
“This,” Beckman said of his energy, “is how I try to wake up each and every morning.”
In 81 days, Beckman will wake up and coach his first game at Illinois. He became the 23rd football coach in Fighting Illini history when he was hired Dec. 9 to replace Ron Zook, who lost his final six games at Illinois and finished with a 34-51 record in seven seasons.
Wherever the program goes under Beckman, this is where it starts.
On Monday, it’s a field in Frankfort and later at Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side.
Today, it starts at Barrington High School and ends at Boylan in Rockford.
Next comes East Peoria, Edwardsville and O’Fallon before a return trip to Champaign.
“We’re coming to you,” Beckman tells his assembled campers as they kneel at midfield. “We’re going to be a part of this state.”
After three years at Toledo, Beckman has barnstormed across Illinois to introduce himself to fans, boosters and potential recruits. The 47-year-old Ohio native recently completed a nine-city caravan and is looking forward to the start of training camp Aug. 7 in Rantoul.
“It’s been great, it really has,” said Beckman, who signed a five-year contract. “We’ve only had 15 days of practice with the players, but I think we progressed each and every practice day to get ourselves better. I’m really, really fired up about going to Rantoul.”
It seems as if Beckman is fired up about everything.
He doesn’t speak to his campers in sentences. He speaks in exclamations.
“Let’s go! On the hop!”
“Good job! Good job, 30!”
Beckman has coached football for 24 years, including two seasons as an assistant at Ohio State. His father, Dave, was an assistant at Iowa before heading to the NFL.
These days, Beckman dresses like a human billboard for Illini football.
He wears blue Illini shorts, a blue-and-orange Illini shirt and a blue Illini visor. He wears orange rubber bracelets around both of his wrists. Even his sunglasses are tinted orange.
The only things not orange or blue: white gym socks, white Nike shoes and a silver whistle.
Illinois linebackers coach Mike Ward followed Beckman after working with him at Toledo and Bowling Green. Ward said Beckman’s enthusiasm was legitimate and effective.
“It’s not his passion,” Ward said. “It’s his life.
“He’s the son of a coach. His wife is also an educator. He’s been around the game his whole life. He eats, sleeps and breathes football and the concept of getting better every day. And, obviously, it’s infectious.”
Asked whether his enthusiasm is contagious, Beckman smiled.
“I hope so,” he said. “Because I think that’s the way you have to life live. You have to live life with energy and enthusiasm.”
“This game is the best game out there, I believe, but it’s also tough. So you better be fired up about each and every day to get yourself better.”
At times last season, the Fighting Illini couldn’t have been worse. They went 2-6 in the Big Ten and stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the six-team Leaders Division, which marked the seventh time in nine seasons that they finished with a sub-.500 conference record.
Beckman could not say for sure how long it would take to fully establish his program.
“Any time you come into a place, it’s a culture change,” Beckman said. “It’s different. Everything’s different. Nobody can say [a timeline].
“Of course, as a coach, you want it as quickly as possible. But as I said to the players, we’re going to strive to get ourselves better each and every day. And if we can do that, then things will happen in our favor. If we don’t do that, then we’ll have problems.”
Some critics predicted problems soon after Beckman’s hire.
Although Beckman led Toledo to back-to-back bowl games, he finished with a modest 21-16 record in three seasons. Higher-profile candidates such as Kevin Sumlin of Houston, Chris Petersen of Boise State and Butch Jones of Cincinnati reportedly rejected offers from Illinois.
Then again, another list of coaches’ names could signal success.
Beckman cites Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel as three examples of successful coaches with roots in the Mid-American Conference.
“I could name them and keep on naming them,” Beckman said of the conference’s coaching tree. “Maybe it’s Mid-American, but the Mid-American has been pretty successful, too.”
Now that Beckman has arrived in the Big Ten, he plans to stay for as long as possible.
“No question,” Beckman said. “I’ve been around this profession for 47 years. I remember my father coaching in this conference. It’s a dream come true.”