The question reverberated throughout college football Twitter and the punditsphere on Wednesday: Why has Larry Fedora brought in Tim Beckman as a volunteer assistant?
Fedora is the North Carolina coach who is entering his fifth season with great expectations. The Tar Heels are coming off of their best season in nearly 20 years, and Fedora believes the best is ahead.
Beckman, meanwhile, is the former Illinois head coach whom the school fired after a university-commissioned investigation found he mistreated injured players. His tenure there ended in disgrace.
So what gives? Why is Fedora, with so much good mojo surrounding his program, bringing in a guy like Beckman – even in a volunteer role? The simple answer — that Fedora is helping out a friend who needs help — has created a complex debate about second chances, and what’s appropriate in a situation like this.
I asked Fedora on Wednesday how this all came to be. How does Beckman, given his history at Illinois, wind up at UNC in a volunteer capacity?
“I talked to him a couple of times over the summer, you know,” Fedora said. “Because he’s a friend and he was looking for work and trying to find jobs. And I told him that if he didn’t find what he was looking for, and he wanted to do it, that I would create a volunteer assistant position for him.”
And how, exactly, does Fedora and his staff benefit from Beckman?
“He’s been a defensive coordinator, he’s been a head coach, at the Power 5 level,” Fedora said. “He’s got another set of eyes when you’re scouting, watching film, all those kinds of things. So it’s a nice thing for us to have.”
The move, predictably, has been scolded. And it’s right to question it. Beckman was found to have put injured players in danger during his tenure at Illinois. He pressured medical staff to downplay injuries. He accused injured players of weakness. He said he didn’t believe in hamstring injuries.
He deserved to lose his job. And it’s very likely he’ll never again be a head coach on the major-college level. Does Beckman deserve to be completely unemployable, though, in any football capacity? Should he never work in coaching again? Those are fair and appropriate questions.
In this social media environment, the outrage over Fedora’s decision to hire Beckman – if “hire” is the right word – was to be expected. And on the surface, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Human relationships aren’t surface-level things, though.
Fedora and Beckman go back. They’ve known each other since working together at Oklahoma State in 2007. The foundation for Beckman’s second chance, nine years later, was laid back then, when Fedora and Beckman formed their friendship.
Fedora described this as a “win-win.”
“We gather something from his knowledge and his experience,” he said, “and he’s able to see the way we do things in our program and the culture here at North Carolina.”
It’s another line built for the Twitter comedians and message boarders and bloggers searching for an easy take: “The culture here at North Carolina.” The scandals. The NCAA investigations. Fedora knew the criticism was coming, especially given that history.
He knew that Beckman would create more perception problems. Fedora doesn’t seem to care.
“I don’t believe everything I read, all right,” Fedora said at one point Wednesday. “I know Tim.”
And then, later:
“I didn’t see anywhere where the NCAA said that he should be banished from the game of football. You know? I mean, the guy didn’t win enough games. That’s all it was.”
Well, not exactly. Beckman lost his job for reasons that had little – or nothing – to do with wins and losses. But there again is another surface-level observation, for the reality is that had Beckman’s teams been more successful, his legacy more secure, his transgressions would have likely become more acceptable.
Look at Florida State. In 2001, a player died during off-season conditioning drills. The coaching staff there, led by the revered Bobby Bowden, literally worked Devaughn Darling to death. Darling had exhibited signs of exhaustion and physical incapacity. He was urged to keep going.
When he died, nobody lost their jobs. Bowden, always one of the most likeable and respected head coaches in the country, remained so. Would that have been the case had Bowden not been Bowden but instead Coach Joe Schmoe, with a 12-24 record after three years?
At UNC, Beckman isn’t a coach. He isn’t working with players. He’s there to help the coaching staff evaluate film and scout. He won’t have the opportunity to treat players the way he did at Illinois.
No matter. The perception has already been set: This is embarrassing and this is a bad move and what is UNC doing here and who does Fedora think he is, bringing in this man?
Fedora had to know it was coming. He didn’t advertise Beckman’s presence on the staff. Beckman had been at UNC for weeks, his role with the team unknown. Then word got out, the negative reaction spread and Fedora was left to defend his decision to give a chance to someone he believes in.