Friday, September 4, 2015

Week 1: Fall of the House of Beck Man

Football has returned!  On Saturday, the twenty-first ranked Stanford Cardinal drive their crowd-sourced content-centered Silicon Valley Tesla bus into Evanston while the Wildcats will try to disrupt their Pac 12 North title bid.  A long, bleak, hatless offseason finally ends.  Northwestern football is back to terrify the Big Ten West, to seize the Land of Lincoln Trophy from the cold, fired hands of the Beck Man, and make it back to a damn bowl game because I am pretty sure there are no more possible ways for Northwestern to lose every single game in a bizarre last-minute conflagration of football misery.

Since last week's exhaustive preview, Pat Fitzgerald has named a starting quarterback.  Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has emerged to grab the starting job, probably because you can't bench the offspring of a Norse deity.  The coaching staff hopes that Thorson will remind Wildcat fans of the traditional scrambly Northwestern quarterback that has led the team during successful years without betraying his lack of experience.  He'll have some help with the return of speedy wideout Christian Jones, who missed all of last year, and Pierre Youngblood-Arry, the Cockney Prince of Agincourt.

Northwestern's offense plans to baffle the opposition with a secret play 
called "The Invisible Didgeridoo"

Northwestern's out of conference schedule this year includes a miniature tour of equally insufferable Power 5 private schools.  Stanford can be seen as a funhouse mirror Northwestern, albeit far more successful on the field, with much nicer weather and an ignominious loss involving a kick return team running over a marching band instead of an ignominious win involving the drowning of a goal post.  The Cardinal went 8-5 last year, including a loss to Notre Dame, a team that crumbled easily before the might of the Wildcats and the cumulative effect of every single lucky break that Northwestern had been denied in nearly two full seasons of football action. 

Maybe opening against a top-25 powerhouse with a freshman quarterback is not the ideal way to start a season.  But top-quality opposition will invite the full pageantry of non-conference football to Ryan Field: ESPN broadcast, Stanford's hallucinogenic tree mascot, and Chicago's Big Ten Tarp.  Northwestern's greatest seasons in recent memory have come out of nowhere.  It is time for them to once again ruin opponents' seasons, crush dreams, and travel to a bowl game even if we have to invent one from whole cloth using shell companies and a long con involving inventing a dot com company.


We don't have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore.  Last week, Illinois abruptly fired him amid allegations of player abuse.  Beckman's dismissal could hardly be seen as unexpected after years of futility, controversy, and general flailing Beckmania-- at one point his Wikipedia page contained a section entitled "Public Outcry"-- but his sudden termination eight days before the start of the season certainly caught the college football world unaware. He spent his last year of coaching like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea; we all knew he'd get eaten by a shark, but the end was still sudden and jarring.

There's nothing at all amusing about the reasons why Beckman was ultimately canned.  A University of Illinois-commissioned report claimed that Beckman pressured injured players to keep playing and threatened players with the loss of their scholarships.  These charges are not that surprising in the world of college football, where some tobacco-stained mustache columnist is probably still rhapsodizing about the time an old-school hat-wearing Woody Hayes type yelled "you're not injured. I'll show you injured" before running a walk-on through with a Civil War cavalry saber.  A cynic could also note that the report gave the university adequate legal ammunition to fire him with cause and save nearly $4 million owed to him on his contract and his buyout.  Beckman denies the allegations and vows to fight for the money owed on his contract.

It seems likely that Beckman's tenure involved shady injury practices and provided the university with a way to renounce his salary. Illinois administrators, already riven with scandals in the athletic department and embattled leadership at the top, found an opportunity to free themselves from financial commitments to a losing coach who continually acted like Tim Beckman in public.  The allegations against Beckman don't seem outside the realm of possibility because they had already been echoed by some former players and because Beckman has coached like he bought a Weekly Reader book from 1967 called Trench Bludgeoner's Guide to College Football and Commie Spotting and dedicated himself to Cold War-era football: thus insisting on having players play through pain, demanding favorable coverage from print media, and nurturing the second-most ridiculous rivalry in college football.


If there is one thing that Tim Beckman accomplished at Illinois it was successfully creating a Northwestern-Illinois rivalry.  It is still not a true rivalry the way most intrastate rivalries work; instead, the Beck Man has somehow reinvented the entire concept of a college football rivalry as a quixotic crusade waged by a single man.  His immediate declaration of war against Northwestern was nothing short of ludicrous. His ham-fisted attempts to stoke that rivalry devolved into farce. It is possible to read the entire Beckman treatment of Northwestern as a brilliant deconstruction of rivalry itself, recasting the Iron Bowl, or the The Game, or the dozens of other actual football rivalries as absurd, rendering all football fans as dimbulb Beckman simulacra.

But, let's give the Beck Man his due here: it sort of worked.  No one hates Northwestern football. Northwestern football is briefly remembered and occasionally pitied. I have spent the past few weeks skimming thousands upon thousands of words of college football and Big Ten previews and almost none of them deign to mention the existence of Northwestern football except as evidence of a Big Ten contender's easy schedule. So when Sheriff Beckman swaggered into town with his school up north euphemisms and purple clothing bans, it was fun.  Beck Man stood in front of the press, the world, and his god decrying Northwestern football with a straight face and it was impossible not to respond with hat-taunts as he floundered about. In theory, the rivalry was against the University of Illinois.  In reality, it was a rivalry with Beck Man himself, who inexplicably continued his one-man anti-Northwestern jeremiads while simultaneously comporting himself like a man in an infomercial unaware that an overstuffed kitchen cabinet is about to unleash an unholy rain of tupperware upon his person.

This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.

What on earth are we going to do without Tim Beckman?  Bill Cubit seems unlikely to burst into a press conference with a fresh barrage of Northwestern hate-mongering-- it is possible he removed the anti-Northwestern symbol from the Illini locker room only to discover it was covering up a secret cache of VHS recordings of an unsold television pilot called "Tim Beckman's Hat Police."  I don't know anything about Cubit other than his name is an obscure, ancient unit of measure that is good for maybe one half-hearted stiff-arm joke per season.  Our only hope is that Cubit somehow becomes mesmerized by the Hat, loses all grip on reality, and turns into a Klaus Kinsky character over the course of the season, his clothes in tatters, his hair frayed, his press conferences devolving into incoherent hat-shrieks, only no one notices because that is still slightly more reasonable than Tim Beckman.

Illinois fans, we're in this together.  Beckman may have have stared blankly into the middle distance for the last time as the Illini coach, but we have a conference, a trophy, and two bleak programs eclipsed in our own state by a MAC team and FCS team, respectively.  We only have each other. 

Beckman, banished to the Phantom Zone, vows to defeat That School 
From The Adjacent Dimension Well Actually There's No Way To Define 
Its Relation To Us In Time and Space

Give us our damn hat back.


Staniel said...

"He spent his last year of coaching like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea; we all knew he'd get eaten by a shark, but the end was still sudden and jarring."

Wow. Just wow. Wow. I definitely did not see a Samuel L. Jackson / Deep Blue Sea reference coming when I started reading. Hopefully Beckman preserved his exhaustive football knowledge in a video recording for the new U of I coach, a la LL Cool J's chef character in Deep Blue Sea discussing how to make the perfect omelette.

Anonymous said...

'These charges are not that surprising in the world of college football, where some tobacco-stained mustache columnist is probably still rhapsodizing about the time an old-school hat-wearing Woody Hayes type yelled "you're not injured. I'll show you injured" before running a walk-on through with a Civil War cavalry saber.'

I snorted in a quiet classroom full of test-taking students upon reading this line.