A departing coach creates opportunities down the line, and in the case of Illinois’ football staff those openings had to be filled at the oddest of times — one week before the season kicked off.
But soon after Illinois fired Tim Beckman last Friday, the pieces fell in place. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who also oversaw running backs, was elevated to head coach, leaving open the position duty. For this job, there was an unusual but obvious solution.
Nathan Scheelhaase, the 24-year-old former Illini and Rockhurst High quarterback who had been out of college for one year, was available.
“It’s funny how things can change so fast,” Scheelhaase said. “Shoot, a running backs coach for a Big Ten team.”
His background made this an eye-opening hire. Scheelhaase had been on the staff since June, when he was hired as assistant director of football operations, and he was prepared to put in the time necessary to climb the coaching ladder.
Last Friday’s events fast-tracked the timetable. Beckman was fired after the school received preliminary results of an internal investigation that substantiated allegations of gross player mistreatment, including forcing players to play through serious injuries and having the medical staff clear players too soon.
Scheelhaase was in a meeting room with other coaches last Friday when text messages from athletic director Mike Thomas summoned them to a mandatory meeting in 30 minutes. There, they were given the news. The next day, Scheelhaase got his new orders.
Young and inexperienced to land a job as a position coach for a major program, yes. But Scheelhaase brought advantages that made him the ideal choice.
Two years ago, Scheelhaase completed his career as the Illini’s leader in total offense. He knows what Illinois wants to do with the ball.
Also, Scheelhaase worked with the running backs and became familiar with the personnel this year when Cubit and his son, Ryan, also an Illini assistant, attended a funeral early in fall camp.
“I was trusted to do that,” Scheelhaase said. “And I know what I’m doing not just because I coached the guys a time or two in practice but I’ve been able to be successful in this offense.”
He was successful enough in his first two years to lead Illinois to successive bowl victories for the only time in school history. Scheelhaase had an injury-plagued 2012 season but thrived in Cubit’s offense as a senior and became only the second Big Ten player to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 2,000 yards in a career.
Scheelhaase was chosen second-team All-Big Ten as a senior, the year Cubit arrived, and they kept open the lines of communication when Scheelhaase spent his first year away from football working as a high school pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
He and his wife, Morgan, also a Kansas Citian, were happy in Kentucky. “An impactful one year and four months,” Scheelhaase said.
But Scheelhaase was interested in coaching, and his alma mater gave him a job. And now a promotion.
Scheelhaase described the events of last Friday and the next couple of days as a “whirlwind.” Not that there’s a blueprint to handle such upheaval, but Scheelhaase believes Illinois has navigated the choppy waters about as well as possible.
“It helped us that we didn’t have time to sit around and dwell on things,” Scheelhaase said.
And Cubit has delivered positive messages all week as the Illini prepares to play Kent State on Friday. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer, praised Cubit. “He’s like a father to most of us,” Lunt said.
With most projections tabbing Illinois sixth in the seven-team Big Ten West Division, expectations aren’t high. But the Illini have already rounded the first curve of the inevitable twists and turns of a season and quickly refocused.
“We’re thinking about Kent State,” Scheelhaase said.
Spoken like a coach, of any age.