When Illinois fired coach Tim Beckman just days before the start of the season it brought back some memories for Marquise Williams.
“I thought back to Butch,” Williams, North Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback said on Monday, referring to former UNC coach Butch Davis.
UNC fired Davis in the summer of 2011, just days before the start of the preseason. Illinois fired Beckman, meanwhile, after the Illini had gone through most of its preseason workouts.
The Tar Heels play Illinois on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, and Williams, who was a freshman when UNC fired Davis, has a good idea of what Illinois’ players might be feeling – and what they’ve endured since Beckman’s firing. It’s probably not all that much different than what Williams and his teammates went through four years ago.
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“I was like, man, a lot of people (are going to think) that’s probably going to be a down moment for them,” Williams said of Beckman’s firing. “But I was thinking, like, that’s not the case.
“These guys will come out and they’re going to start winning football games and they’re going to probably play for a big-time bowl game.”
That might be a bit premature. Illinois, like UNC, went 6-7 a season ago. A “big-time bowl game,” as Williams put it, is still a ways away. But the Illini are off to a good start, at least.
Last year Illinois during a pair of early-season victories struggled to put away Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. There was no such drama, or trouble, in Illinois’ first two victories this season. The Illini outscored Kent State and Western Illinois, a Football Championship Subdivision team, 96-3.
It can sometimes be difficult to evaluate teams early in the season, especially if they’ve played inferior competition. Still, UNC coach Larry Fedora on Monday felt comfortable saying that Illinois is better than South Carolina, which defeated UNC in Charlotte on Sept. 3.
After the mediocrity of last season Illinois faced a lot of questions entering this one. Motivation, Williams said, shouldn’t be among them. He’s familiar with what can happen when a team fires its head coach, and how a team can respond.
“That brings a team together,” Williams said. “That brings it (together) as a family and they think, ‘We can do this on our own.’”
The turmoil at UNC, where Davis was fired amid an NCAA investigation, took its toll during the 2011 season. The Tar Heels started 5-1 but finished 7-6. In some ways, Fedora is still attempting to rebuild from the mess he inherited.
The long-term implications of Beckman’s firing won’t be known for years to come. Undoubtedly, it will affect recruiting and fan support and a variety of other things. For now, though, it hasn’t seemed to negatively affect Illinois on the field, which doesn’t surprise Williams.
“It made us say that we were hungry,” Williams said of Davis’ firing. “We were hungry to win football games. We were hungry to get our fan base behind us, to help us be supported on Saturdays. Those guys are the same way.
“You know, like I say, they’re 2-0. And a lot of people might say they haven’t played anyone but it doesn’t matter. They haven’t allowed a touchdown, and they’re averaging 40 points a game.”