The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Friday abruptly fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, after an external review into the coach’s behavior revealed that he put his players at risk by deterring them from reporting injuries and pressuring them to continue playing when hurt.
The preliminary findings of the ongoing investigation -- which included a review of 200,000 pages of documents, interviews with 90 people and a “large volume” of practice and game video -- were presented to Mike Thomas, the university’s athletic director, earlier this week.
“It showed me enough evidence that Tim Beckman needed to be dismissed as the University of Illinois head football coach,” Thomas said during a press conference Friday, adding that the findings left him “shocked and angry.”
The full investigation, which is being handled by an external law firm, will continue throughout the season. Beckman will not receive the remaining $3.1 million he is owed on his five-year contract or the $743,000 he was meant to receive if his contract was bought out. He served as head football coach at Illinois for three years.
The preliminary findings of the review mirror many of the accusations that a former player posted to Twitter in May. It was those tweets that prompted the investigation into Beckman’s behavior.
The player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.
Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a "lifetime of surgery" related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said.
“If I'm hurt, I'm hurt,” he tweeted. “I don't need to be called a pussy to make me make bad decisions for my body.”
In a call with reporters when Cvijanovic first tweeted his complaints, Thomas was bullish in defending Beckman, calling the Twitter comments “a personal attack” against the coach.
At the time, Thomas said that Beckman put the welfare of his players “above anything else” and that exit interviews with the team’s senior players didn’t “correspond” with Cvijanovic’s complaints. A number of current and former Illinois football players (and fans) also defended Beckman on Twitter, chastising Cvijanovic for quitting and telling him to “man up.”
Some college athletes from other institutions, however, praised Cvijanovic for bringing attention to what they said are common but rarely discussed issues in college athletics. One former player tweeting his support was a member of Beckman’s team from when he coached at the University of Toledo prior to coaching at Illinois.
"I appreciate all the support I have received," Cvijanovic tweeted after hearing the news of Beckman's firing. "Huge step in bettering athletics and in helping us prevent future wrongdoings."
Despite his initial backing of Beckman, Thomas said on Friday that the investigation began immediately after the former player's complaints were posted on Twitter. “We took action, but reserved judgment,” he said. “The health and well-being of our student athletes is our top priority and this decision was based on the health and well-being of our student athletes.”
Beckman denied the allegations in a statement sent to reporters, calling the investigation "a rush to judgment" and saying that he was "shocked and extremely disappointed by the decision" to fire him. “First and foremost, I firmly deny the implications in Mike’s statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players,” Beckman stated. “The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.”
The allegations about Beckman are not the only accusations of impropriety made against the university’s athletic programs this year. Last month, seven former women’s basketball players sued the university, accusing the team’s head coach of abuse and racism. In June, a former women’s soccer player also sued, alleging that she was wrongly cleared to play after suffering a concussion.
With the football team’s first game of the season just eight days away, Bill Cubit, the team’s offensive coordinator, has been tapped to serve as interim head coach. Thomas said that Cubit and other members of the coaching and medical staff have so far not been implicated in the external review.
When asked during Friday’s press conference whether he had talked to Beckman, Cubit said he briefly spoke to the fired coach earlier in the day and expressed his appreciation for Beckman’s support over the years.
“I thanked him,” Cubit said. “You know, I’m a loyal guy.”
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