Tag Archives: Bill Cubit

Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck Marks Changing of the Guard at MAC Media Days

Last Thursday, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher took the podium at Ford Field to deliver his annual State of the MAC address, kicking off media day festivities and, more importantly, signaling that the long wait for 2016 #MACtion is drawing quickly to a close. In his remarks, Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s reputation for “respecting the grind.” He discussed adjustments to challenge procedures. He voiced proposed restrictions on satellite camps. He even took the time to recite his favorite sections of A Tale of Two Cities. Sexy stuff.

The remainder of the day was dominated by coaches and their respective programs. Frank Solich gave us a glimpse into Ohio University’s improved front seven. Terry Bowden discussed building upon Akron’s program-record eight wins last season. Mike Jinks announced his plans to continue Bowling Green’s explosive success with the air raid offense. In short: standard, run-of-the-mill, coaching speak.

Then there was P.J. Fleck.

Nearly four years ago, the Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a disastrous, 4-8 campaign with a loss to Eastern Michigan, the Broncos’ worst finish since 2004. Head coach Bill Cubit took the resulting fall, his tenure in Kalamazoo ending after seven seasons, three bowl appearances, and – count ‘em – zero postseason victories. Still yet to claim a bowl victory or a MAC title in its history, the Broncos found themselves once again searching for a savior to resurrect a stagnant program.

Jesus Christ was resurrected at 33. P.J. Fleck was hired at 32. Jesus Christ is a pretty good recruiter. P.J. Fleck might just be better.

Fleck steered into the skid his first season at the helm, limping to a 1-11 season as the youngest coach in the FBS (he still is). But shortly thereafter, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mentality propelled the program to back-to-back eight win seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and – finally – a bowl victory. Fleck’s marked improvements to the culture of Western Michigan even birthed a new language: Bronconese. While nuggets like Row the Boat and F.A.M.I.L.Y. might strike outsiders as a foreign language, recruits are clearly fluent in it. Fleck hauled in the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to what’s currently a sizable lead for the 2017 cycle.

Those recruits haven’t delivered a MAC title yet, but this season’s preseason media poll indicates those fortunes may be changing. Despite the fact Northern Illinois has claimed an FBS record seven straight division titles, the Broncos are the media’s overwhelming favorite to take the conference crown, signaling not only a changing of the guard among MAC elite, but among college football at large.

A 35-year-old coach in his fourth season is taking the Group of 5 by storm. And can we really be surprised?

Certainly Fleck isn’t the first coaching phenom to rise from a mid-major school, but he’s certainly a far cry you’re your average MAC coach. College football, more commercialized than ever, has assumed a climate where the P.J. Fleck’s of the country can thrive even in mediocre programs and mediocre conferences. Look towards Michigan’s recent uniform reveal, following a nearly $200 million deal with Nike. Look towards college football’s loosened restrictions on Twitter as a recruiting tool, a welcomed development for a man this skilled in the art of Twitter.

Western Michigan might not have Fleck for long, but the overall trend is going nowhere. I’m a college kid myself, and hearing Fleck’s narrative in articles and interviews makes a nerd like me want to run through walls. Young coaches like P.J. Fleck, Tom Herman, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart represent a new wave of college coaches in a new era of college football. These guys aren’t sullen and curmudgeonly like certain high-profile coaches, they’re brand-oriented, message-driven inspiratory uniquely tooled to address millennials as near-millennials themselves. It’s happening in the MAC, and it’s happening countrywide.

Jon Steinbrecher, Frank Solich, Terry Bowden, and other seasoned figures across the college football landscape will continue the same old song and dance, and that’s fine. But don’t be mistaken, P.J. Fleck is the future of college football. It’s reflected in recruiting rankings, on the field, and in the locker room. The question isn’t whether or not P.J. Fleck will stick, the question is whether other programs will take notice, opting to abandon traditional, X’s and O’s coaching candidates, to find a media-savvy brand builder fit to revive a program in the reality of 21st Century college football.

So when a Power 5 school looks to fill a coaching vacancy this winter, they’ll survey a myriad of candidates. Those candidates will come with thick resumes, foolproof pro-style offenses, and run-of-the-mill coaching speak.

And then there’ll be P.J. Fleck.

E-mail Cole at cole.hankins@campuspressbox.com or follow him in Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of larrysphatpage – Flickr

Firing the Coach in March? Josh Whitman Starts Illinois AD Career with a Bang

Waking up on an early March Saturday morning, Bill Cubit was probably excited about the possibilities of his Illinois football team with spring practice coming up. Where could he improve his team, after a 5-7 2015 finish, enough to make it to a bowl game in 2016? Cubit had plenty of reason for hope. After a tumultuous off-season for the program, Cubit made it through unscathed as the interim coach and even signed a new two-year deal to officially be the football team’s head coach. Well the Fighting Illini might make a bowl game this upcoming season, but it won’t be under Cubit’s watch. Cubit was fired Saturday on new AD Josh Whitman’s first day on the job and swiftly replaced by former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith.

On the surface, the timing of the move seems questionable at best. It happened days before spring practice was set to begin. Not exactly a smooth start for a program that has had little success in recent memory. It was also rumored that there were recruits either on campus or set to be on campus in the coming days. Whitman sure did his best to show the kids what the college football world is really like right off the bat didn’t he? As far as the players currently on the team, they didn’t seem pleased that they didn’t find out directly from the new AD. When you step back and look at all this from Whitman’s point of view however, I think he probably made the best move that he could. Cubit isn’t a big name and he’s not an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks. There’s little evidence that he could have taken the Illini to the next level, or any level really. As the new AD, was Whitman supposed to sit around and waste a year with a head coach he knew he was set to get rid of at the end of the year anyway? He probably feels as a young AD he needs to prove himself as quickly as possible and in the college football world, guys don’t get unlimited time to make that happen.

As far as the state of the current team, I understand the players being upset they didn’t hear about it from Whitman. Is it possible he could have scheduled meetings with the players and Bill Cubit back-to-back? Sure, but he had to tell someone first. It would have been just as unfair to Cubit as it was the players if Whitman had told the team first and they took to twitter (college athletes would never do that right?) resulting in Cubit finding out before Whitman had a chance to tell him. And is it a bit inconvenient for a change in coach so close to spring practice? Definitely. In the long run though, it will be more beneficial for the program to have this extra time with a coach who should be there for at least three or four years as opposed to having one uninterrupted year with a coach who is sure to be gone after the year anyway.

Aside from Whitman wanting to bring someone in who is “his guy”, there were other reasons to let Cubit go. Prior to the 2015 season, Cubit was offensive coordinator for previous Illinois coach Tim Beckman. Shortly before last year, Beckman was fired for allegations of player abuse mostly centered around treatment of players with injuries. Cubit also was implicated by the same player, but ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. The allegations were also far less numerous and serious as the ones claimed against Beckman. On the other hand, the situation left the athletic department in complete disarray and the football program a mess. Left to lead the team out of this was a guy who was very close, and originally implicated, in said mess. In the future, teams competing with the Illini for recruits could bring this up with Cubit as coach and say, “Can you be sure injured player mistreatment still isn’t going on?” It’s understandable for the new AD to want to cut ties completely to the mess that ultimately landed him his job there.

However odd the timing of this move may be, both in terms of Whitman’s short reign as AD to this point as well as the football team in general, no one will blink an eye if new coach Lovie Smith can bring success to a program that has seen little of it recently. But is Smith the right guy to get that done? That’s what makes this whole situation more interesting. It’s not as if Whitman let Cubit go and had a slam dunk hire waiting in the wings. Sure Lovie Smith is a big name, and one that certainly resonates in the state of Illinois, but he hasn’t been in the college game in over two decades and has never even been a college football coordinator, let alone a head coach. How will he feel about year-round recruiting trips? Can he learn quickly to press the right buttons with college kids, buttons that are surely different than the ones he need to press for professionals getting paid millions? Whitman is banking his early career on it and on Smith’s reputation. It’s easy to say ‘Hey, Lovie Smith coached the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, come play for the Fighting Illini’. It’s less easy when you remember the kids Smith will be recruiting were under 10 years old when the Bears went to that Super Bowl, and these kids have grown up in an era where people don’t feel obligated to root for the hometown team. Will it matter in some cases? Sure, but it won’t make up for nearly enough if Lovie can’t handle the other aforementioned questions. Besides, it’s not like Illinois is a hotbed for recruiting talent.

On Smith’s side will be Illinois’ expectations, or lack thereof. The Illini have made just five bowl games this century, so the bar has been set low. If Smith can get them to bowl games consistently, or have a random nine-win season during his first contract, it should be enough to get him a second one. Ultimately if Smith is a good college coach, this shouldn’t be a problem considering he gets to coach in one of the worst divisions in the nation, the Big Ten West.

In the end, new AD Josh Whitman wanted to bring in someone who was “his guy”, just as new coaches like to bring in their own quarterback and new NFL GMs like to bring in a hand-picked NFL coach. The only thing different here is that Whitman didn’t start his job until March and didn’t have the luxury of getting his pick during the normal coaching carousel. Rather than sitting on his hands for a year, Whitman decided to go against the grain. His connections to Lovie Smith surely made making the decision easier, he’ll just have to hope it doesn’t end up costing him his own job down the road.

Photo courtesy

The Pipeline – August 29, 2015: A Firing, some Fines, and a new Television Deal

1. Illinois Fires Tim Beckman Seven Days before Season Opener

Our top news story in this week’s Pipeline comes from the University of Illinois.  (Never thought you’d read that, did you?)  Yes, the Illini have attracted national attention, at least for a couple days.

Head coach Tim Beckman was fired Friday afternoon just seven days before Illinois opens its season against Kent State.  Director of Athletics Mike Thomas dismissed Beckman due to the findings of an external investigation into the mistreatment of players.

Beckman is alleged to have deterred the reporting of player injuries, and pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and play through injuries.  There are also some questions as to whether or not seniors were treated fairly with respect to their scholarship status during the spring semester once they were done playing.  He has, of course, denied that the allegations are accurate, setting the stage for a future lawsuit.

These are very serious accusations.  And there must have been quite a lot of damning evidence to substantiate these claims for Thomas to can Beckman so close to the season opener.

Bill Cubit will take over for the 2015 as interim head coach.  He joined the Illini coaching staff in 2013 as offensive coordinator.

The issue of player safety became real for us last fall when Brady Hoke and the Michigan training staff failed miserably in protecting quarterback Shane Morris.  Excuse the video quality, but you should hear how Mike Patrick and Ed Cunningham brought this to a live audience.  Now that a coach has been fired for mismanaging his players, it’s officially a hot button issue.

2. Fining College Football Players?

On Wednesday, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said some things he shouldn’t have about the possibility of fining players.  Athletic director Whit Babcock was quick to shut the idea down, saying Tech would be doing no such thing.

On Thursday a list of all finable offenses is spotted outside the Tech locker room.  A picture is taken.  The picture makes its way around the internet.  And Foster’s words are legitimized, proving that there was a plan in place to fine Hokie players for misbehavior.

Then, Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville seconds Foster’s motion.  The AD in this case, UC’s Mike Bohn does not squash his coach’s idea, but instead agrees with him.

There’s some confusion about whether this is legal.  NCAA rules state that taking money from a student’s scholarship is impermissible.  However, there is supposedly some language in these financial aid contracts which states the school may subtract aid if the violations go against department policy or the student code of conduct.

I’m no legal eagle.  I’ll let the lawyers decide what exactly the contracts allow schools to do with players’ financial aid.  I can say that this will undoubtedly add another convoluted layer to the already complicated cake that is the controversy over compensating college athletes.

3. Pac-12 Network on DirecTV

As our own Mike Wilson wrote last week, west coast football fans might be able to relax soon.  After years of not carrying the Pac-12 Network on their cable package, DirecTV will finally give fans out west what they want.

DirecTV, which was recently bought by AT&T, began testing on Friday that appears to be the first step towards bringing the Pac-12 Network to their customers’ television sets.

Imagine the frustration of paying for sports packages you’re not interested in while your favorite conference’s network is unavailable to you.  This is what some fans have been dealing with since the Pac-12 Network’s inception in 2012.

Luckily for them it seems to be coming to an end just in time for the 2015 season.

4. Sarkisian Apologizes for “Inappropriate” Behavior

Steve Sarkisian addressed the media on Tuesday concerning his “inappropriate” behavior at a USC donor event last Saturday.  Apparently, he had too much to drink and had taken some pills he was prescribed.

The press conference was short, but notably odd.

There were unnecessarily personal questions about specifically what medication Sarkisian was referring to in his statement.  Rightfully, he declined to disclose that information.

When asked if he had a drinking problem, Sarkisian said, “No, I don’t believe so, but through Pat [Haden] and the University, I’m going to find that out.”

“I don’t know if I even need rehab,” Sarkisian said.  “That’s part of the process, and I credit Pat Haden for this, that he has put things in place for me to have meetings to figure that out.”

He was quick to ‘swear off’ drinking for the rest of the season, and clarified that while there was never any alcohol in the players’ locker room, it will now be completely banned from all USC football facilities.

The USC players had their coach do a set of down-ups, just as they would have had to do for breaking team rules.

The team has moved on and so should the media.  This was a big mistake, but it was not an accurate reflection of Sarkisian’s character.

5. Vernon Adams Wins Oregon’s Starting QB Job

Anyone who was following the quarterback battle at Oregon knew there was a good chance Vernon Adams would end up winning the job.  The Ducks’ week one depth chart was released on Friday, and sure enough Adams was at the top.

This is news mostly because it wasn’t news to those of us who were paying attention.

Adams is a graduate transfer student who played three seasons at Eastern Washington.  He put up the type of numbers you see from Oregon quarterbacks, throwing for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns while with the Eagles.  With Marcus Mariota gone to the NFL and the rest of the team in place, the Ducks needed a new quarterback who could step in and preform immediately.  In Adams, they’ve got just that.

USA Today Sports
USA Today Sports

Interestingly, Adams will make his first start against his alma mater next weekend when the Ducks host the Eagles.  That’s right, just three weeks after graduating from Eastern Washington he will take the field against his former team.

Ahh, what a glorious loophole in the NCAA’s transfer rules.

The P.J. Fleck Experiment

The P.J. Fleck Experiment

            1-11?  Not quite what Western Michigan University administrators had in mind when they signed P.J. Fleck to the head coaching job in the winter of 2013.  In fact, my money says behind closed doors there were demands for his head (and job) despite his 5-year, $392,000 contract.  This happens to be a cool $17K more than previous Coach Bill Cubit made despite Coach Cubit having a successful tenure at Western Michigan, including the biggest single-season turnaround in MAC history turning a 1-10 record in 2004, into a 7-4 record in 2005 and earning Cubit MAC coach of the year honors.  Coach Cubit also led WMU to its first bowl appearance in nearly 20 years in 2006 (1988 previous bowl appearance) which was 1 of 3 bowl appearances under Cubits watch.  Coach Cubit amassed a 51-47 career record at WMU including landmark victories over Iowa, Virginia, Illinois, and University of Connecticut.  Cubit has since moved on to take the Offensive Coordinator and QB coaching job with the University of Illinois. Those are some big shoes to fill for the 33-year old first-time head coach from Maple Park, Illinois.  Moving his wife, son, and daughter from his hometown, where he was the Offensive Coordinator at his alma mater Northern Illinois, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, Fleck signed the largest contract in Western Michigan football history.  Fleck becomes the 15th head coach in the 108 year history of WMU football although the hiring left many shaking their heads at the lofty numbers offered to a first-timer with minimal experience.  Playing WR for 4-years at N. Illinois followed by a short NFL stint with the S.F. 49ers in 2004-2005, Fleck moved on to be a graduate’s assistant at Ohio St. under head coach Jim Tressel.  From their Fleck returned home to his alma mater as the WR’s coach from 2007-2009 under head coach’s Joe Novak and Jerry Kill respectively followed by a 2-year run under now NFL coach Greg Schiano as Rutgers WR’s coach.  In a brutal move that had to leave a bitter taste in a lot of mouths Fleck accepted the Offensive Coordinator position again with his alma mater in 2012 because he quote “bleeds for NIU” and “doesn’t belong anywhere else” only to promptly bail the very next day to reunite with Greg Schiano this time with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  I can understand the great opportunity the NFL offers but the circumstances and way it all played out leave a smudge in my book of Fleck. My feeling, and that of many college football analysts, is head coach’s have a 3-year window to produce.  It takes 3-years to sufficiently instill an offensive and defensive game plan and to get your recruiting class established.  First year failure (even epic 1-11 failure) is to be somewhat expected, unless in the rare case the previous coach retired and handed you a contender, and not judged as harshly.  The key is showing marked improvement year 2 and by year 3 hypothetically you’ve molded your squad into a fine tuned football machine ready to win championships (or at least finish over.500).  Obviously repeated losing seasons and a lack of progression may result in an early termination of a contract while mediocrity may earn you an extra year, one more go at it, but that’s all she wrote.  Best of luck, hope you sign with our rivals next season!
pj fleck 2Fleck wasted no time striving towards getting his own recruiting class involved as his first action as head coach was to rescind all WMU’s football scholarships already offered saying: “I know if it was me I’d be ticked”, “but I also know if it was me I would have showed up at the office of the head football coach telling him I was dying to still be there”.  Kind of a harsh move albeit rather bold and possibly highly effective.  Those players may or may not have found another school to play for but Fleck’s housecleaning opened up a lot of new positions and recruiting ability for his staff.  Now despite the gloomy outlook given of Mr. Fleck so far, there’s actually a lot to excited about in 2014 for Bronco fans. I know, 1-11, worst record in 10 years, 0-7 in the MAC, I get it… not good!  To his defense, a flood of injuries, youth of players, and a general inexperience caused big problems in the early part of the season while the Broncos got stronger and showed signs of possibility and improvement late in the year with a thrilling 31-30 victory of UMASS and several close conference match-ups.  Sports Illustrated named Fleck “Best New Hire of 2013” and year 2 may just prove them right. Again, having a wide open recruiting board, Fleck and his staff have succeeded in recruiting a highly touted player class for 2014.  Analysts say it’s the best WMU recruiting class since 2000, while Rivals.com ranks WMU as “Highest Mid-Major Recruiting Class”.  247sports.com ranks them 36th nationally which is the highest online ranking the Broncos received.  Many consider it to be the best recruiting class in WMU history and statistically, it is.  It’s a clear #1 class in non-BCS schools.  Fleck saw 2 N. Illinois WR’s go to the NFL and will have 3 returning players receiving All-Conference honors including last week’s player spotlight Corey Davis, MAC Freshman of the Year, Travonte Boles, 3rd Team at Defensive Lineman, and Donald Celiscar also 3rd Team at Defensive Back.  Being the first MAC school ever to achieve a Top 60 college recruiting rank ever reaching 57th and adding 14 more 3-star recruits, more than twice as many as any other MAC school, has Fleck looking like a genius and poised for a dramatic turnaround in Coach Cubit fashion or possibly better. Despite being picked to finish 5th in the MAC’s West division in the preseason polls, I think a challenge for the division title isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.  Clearly some player grooming and an understanding of the game plan will take some time but with enough talented athletes on the field, a lot of positive things can happen.  I’ll wait until after my team review articles to make a season record prediction but it seems impossible for Fleck to flop again.  For now we have to wait to see if P.J. Fleck can “Row his Boat” full of shiny new recruits to the promised land and I know Bronco fans would love nothing more that to see Fleck beat his alma mater for a MAC championship on national television.  Stay tuned for more on the Western Michigan University Broncos from out here in MAC land.

Big Ten: The I's Have it…At Least This Week!

Starting the 2014 season is the only thing that’s going to make Illinois Coach Tim Beckman and his team forget the 2013 campaign. With major questions on both sides of the ball and not one four-star or better recruit coming in this year, no one is expecting many answers from this year’s Illini team. Although often criticized by the media, QB Nathan Scheelhaase is going to be missed ridiculously by O-coordinator Bill Cubit. He’s going to go from having an athletic coach on the field to maybe having to stand on the field himself (a la Pee Wee ball) with his inexperienced offense.
Early non conference opponents will look to jump on the inexperienced and sometimes Fightless Illini to get that BIG conference victory notch on their belt, and by the last week of September The University of Illinois could be walking into Lincoln 1-3 to start the BIG season. Beckman already knows that another “ofer” or “one and done” conference season will have him looking for a real estate agent and shopping moving companies by Christmas. It’s been six years since the Illini has had a recruiting class worth talking about, and the players that they have had in the program have not developed into players who could compete on the BIG level. So if Coach Beckman has any tricks up his sleeves, he should cut those sleeves off, or better yet just wear a “wife beater” because it’s now or never to let it all hang out
I expect much of the same from the Indiana Hoosier football team in 2014. They’re going to go up and down the field running and passing like nobody’s business, but when it’s all said and done they still may not make it to a bowl game. The Hoosiers first problem is their schedule. Besides having Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio all on the road, the Hoosiers will be welcoming MSU, and Penn State to Bloomington as well. I couldn’t pick the three teams that the Hoosiers can beat out out of that six to go .500, but head coach Kevin Wilson better.
The last problem is going to be trying to stop other teams from scoring at will. The basketball Hoosiers gave up almost 67 points a game last year. Not to compare the teams, but the football Hoosiers gave up 39 points a game last season…that’s too many for any team to give up and to try to win let alone a team with young and untapped talent.
New D- coordinator Brian Knorr is installing a 3-4 look and he hopes that his athletic linebacking corps shows up ready to turn a few facemasks in the wrong direction. He’s got a lot of other young talent at his disposal and he’ll need all of it to play fundamentally sound ball. If not, we can expect more basketball scores from the Hoosiers long before November.
Of the “I” schools, Iowa is the cream of the crop…(pun intended)! Coming off an 8-5 season with an Outback Bowl bid, Coach Kirk Ferentz is hoping for lightning to strike twice or maybe three times in Iowa City this season.

The Hawkeyes will once again rely on the run to move the ball down field. With O-coordinator Greg Davis logging in for his 3rd season, the Hawkeyes passing game should see some improvement with
QB Jake Rudock once again taking the snaps with a ton of young receivers to sling it to. The defensive side of the ball doesn’t look quite as promising on paper, or my laptop…because truly no one looks at anything on paper anymore! The Hawkeyes are without the services of six defensive starters from 2013, including three linebackers. So the first few weeks of the season will be like an office potluck… You hope other people bring something good to the table, but if they can’t bring something good… Just bring something!
Forever Football,
One Man Shan