Rockets gear up for bowl date with FIUWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
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In the Toledo football coaches’ headquarters on the second floor of Larimer Athletic Complex at the north end zone of the Glass Bowl, one detail is far more prominent than any of the blown-up pictures of past Rockets football lore that adorn the walls. Above every coach’s office nameplate is a picture of each one with his family. Family is not merely a theme for University of Toledo football. It’s what they’re all about.
“It comes from my mom and dad,” said second-year Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. “My dad being an NFL coach and a college coach, me being a youngster watching and going to every practice at the University of Iowa, and then [having] big linemen coming over and my mom cooking spaghetti for them — I was always around it. Everything that I’ve ever done, I’ve been around it.”
For as long as he can remember, Beckman wanted to become a football coach. When he first went to a coaches’ convention with his father, Dave, several coaches in attendance wondered why Beckman would want to enter such a grueling profession that requires countless hours of preparation, dedication, studying and traveling. After watching his dad’s relationship with the sport his whole life, though, there was no doubt for Beckman about what he wanted to do.
“I’ve seen how my father enjoyed it and what football meant to him,” Beckman said. “So in the long-run, it’s something that I wanted to do because I saw that he was having fun doing it.”
As a high-energy coach, Beckman certainly was well-equipped for his chosen profession. His coaching career has spanned nearly 23 years with seven different institutions, the most recent stops being with Oklahoma State as the Cowboys defensive coordinator under Mike Gundy (2007-08), the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State under Jim Tressel (2005-06) and the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Bowling Green (1998-04), where Beckman worked with Urban Meyer. Combine that energy with a career where you’re almost always on the move in some fashion, and it’s no surprise that Beckman interviewed for the Toledo job in The Westin at Detroit Metro Airport during a recruiting trip he was on following the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game two years ago. And, in Beckman fashion, the interview was high-energy.
“I just felt that the tradition of this program, the community and being involved in the Mid-American Conference like I’ve been involved with the Mid-American Conference, I really believed that this is as good a job as there is in the Mid-American Conference,” Beckman said.
When Beckman took over as the Rockets 25th head football coach in December 2008, his energy and family values were apparent to the players from the first time he addressed the team.
“He was just talking about competing at a high level and being accountable and just starting the winning tradition all over again and bringing the team closer together,” Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Stephen Williams said in a phone interview with Toledo Free Press. “We had to do different activities where we got to get to know each other as a team, not just hang out with people you know.”
Williams played at Toledo from 2006-09 and was part of last season’s 5-7 (3-5 MAC) squad in Beckman’s first year. He finished his only season under Beckman as Toledo’s all-time leader in receptions and reception yardage.
“He just brought a different aspect to my game, of just being more physical,” Williams said. “It helped me a lot because that’s all the NFL is. It’s about being physical. So when I came, I was already mentally prepared.”
Senior center Kevin Kowalski said it didn’t take long for Beckman to earn the team’s respect because of his passion for the game and his winning history.
“He turned the attitude of this program around,” Kowalski said. “His passion for the game I think is the first thing, just how much energy he brought and how much he showed that he wanted to win, and also his prior success. He’s won a lot, and that makes you respect him and believe in him.”
The turnaround in year two is evidence of the players’ willingness to buy in as Beckman has guided the 2010 Rockets to an 8-4 (7-1 MAC) overall record and their first bowl appearance since 2005, all this despite a young roster with only 13 seniors and a schedule that put Toledo on the road for four of its first six games. On Dec. 26 at 8:30 p.m., the Rockets will take on Sun Belt Conference co-champion Florida International (6-6, 6-2 SBC) in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit. While 6-6 might not impress some onlookers, the Golden Panthers are much better than their record indicates.
After starting the season 0-4, FIU won six of its last eight games en route to the first SBC championship and bowl game in school history. Statistically, the Golden Panthers rank in the top five in several SBC categories, including No. 1 in both total defense (363.3 ypg) and scoring defense (26.9 ppg), as well as No. 3 in total offense (402.3 ypg) and scoring offense (28.3 ppg), respectively. Considering that FIU has only had a football team since 2002, the program has made leaps and bounds in a relatively short period of time.
“The biggest thing is they’re champions,” Beckman said. “In all honesty, they’re tied, but they beat the team that they’re tied with. I’m very impressed. We know a little bit about them because we’ve played them the last two years.”
The Golden Panthers defeated the Rockets 35-16 at the Glass Bowl in 2008 for their first-ever nonconference Football Bowl Subdivision victory, while Toledo won by a score of 41-31 last year in FIU Stadium. Not only is FIU a familiar opponent, but also features a familiar face in offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield, who served as the Rockets’ passing coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2009.
“That’s the exciting thing about this football game is we both know each other,” Beckman said. “Mario Cristobal has done a great job with that program. We know it’ll be a challenge and it’ll be a four-quarter game.”
Another sideline similarity is that the Golden Panthers have their own version of Toledo sophomore wide receiver Eric Page in junior wide receiver and 2010 SBC Player of the Year T.Y. Hilton. Like Page, Hilton is a smaller but speedy playmaker at 5 foot-10 inches and 185 pounds. Hilton has a team-high 56 receptions for 816 yards and four touchdowns this season. He has also rushed for four scores and returned a kickoff for a touchdown, ranking second in the SBC in kick return average with 27.5 yards per return. In two career games against the Rockets, Hilton has 11 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
“You have to know where he is at all times because he is a playmaker,” Beckman said. “We’ve played some pretty good wide receivers this year, but I would say that he definitely ranks with the tops that we’ve faced and the tops in this conference, for sure.”
For Beckman, going to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and having the opportunity to bring a victory back to Toledo is great not just because it’s been part of the plan he’s put in place to rebuild a championship program, but also because his players are translating their on-field success off the field as well. Involvement in the community has drastically increased, as each player does five hours of community service work during the off-season and two hours during the season. Academically, the Rockets have made significant strides since Beckman took over. The team’s cumulative Academic Progress Rate during the 2008-09 academic year was the highest in program history at 934, up from 908 the previous year.
“They’ve fulfilled our expectations of this plan that we’ve set in place,” Beckman said. “Much like a father, you’re proud that they become successful, and they’re being successful not just on the football field, but in everything they do.”