Coaches discuss Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Family, Character

(DALLAS, TEX.) – Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz and Illinois head coach Tim Beckham met with the media Thursday at Cotton Bowl Stadium in advance of the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. The coaches discussed their seasons leading up to this point, becoming bowl eligible, and growing up as the sons of head coaches in collegiate football. the coaches also discussed some of their key impact impact players, and their plans in the weeks leading to the big game after Christmas.

The press conference began with opening remarks by the Executive Director of the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Brant Ringler. It was so easy to see the excitement of Ringler. His smile was contagious, as he discussed the future of the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, entering their first year of the five-year sponsorship. In their first year, Zaxby’s has already made changes by making the bowl free to first responders and their families.

“We are very excited about the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. I think we have two great teams here with the University of Illinois and Louisiana Tech. We have been watching Louisiana Tech throughout the year and during Conference USA play,” Ringler said.

Ringler stated that his committee was very confident in their selections, and that they believe that they have something going moving forward.

“Illinois came on our radar late in the year but they made a great run to make it into the bowl season. We could not be happier to have these two teams, on a trending path upward, to be in our game. I think we are going to have a fantastic game for our first Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl,” Ringler said.

Both coaches are in the infancy of rebuilding their respective programs. They both know that it is not an easy task, and that it takes time to change the culture of a program. Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman is in his third year with the Fighting Illini, and Skip Holtz is in his second year with the Bulldogs.

For Beckman, his Illini had to win three of their last five games to get to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. It was late in the month of October, the Illini were 3-4, and had yet to win a game in October; Something had to change.

“There came a point in time right before we played Minnesota where we gathered up as a team and had to go one direction or the other. We could either step forward, meet the challenge and attack the Minnesota Golden Gophers or we could just give in and this football team was not going to do that,” Beckman said.

“I cannot say enough again about this staff and the senior leadership. We had a backup quarterback that had to play. He had to lead us victory into three of those last five games we had. That is what we needed to get accomplished,” Beckman said. “We needed to get to a bowl game, our program needs those types of things to move forward. I cannot tell you the excitement that is in Champaign and in our facility with our athletic department to earn a bowl game down here in Dallas,” Beckman said.

The Bulldogs did not have the same path on the way to Dallas. Holtz’s team was having their way with Conference USA early in the 2014 season, as they had become bowl eligible at around the same time the Illini was turning their season around. The Bulldogs were right in the middle of a five game winning streak, and would go on to lose two of their last three games, including the CUSA Championship versus Marshall.

“I cannot say enough things about the progress that this team has made. The leadership that we have had has given us an opportunity to improve and grow” Holtz said. “We went through a similar situation when we started the season 2-3 with losses to Oklahoma and Auburn as we were getting into the conference race,” Holtz said.

“I felt that game helped us to grow and mature into a better football team. We want on about a five game winning streak from there,” Holtz said. “We got the opportunity to win the west and represent the west in the Conference USA Championship. Unfortunately, we were a couple minutes away, the game was about two minutes too long,” Holtz said.

The Illini had their fair share of adversity on 2014. Halfway through the season, the team lost their starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, a junior transfer student from Oklahoma State to a leg injury. Senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole stepped in, and made the best of his opportunity, and has lead the Illini to Dallas.

“Wes Lunt got injured halfway through the football season and so Reilly had to come in gather the football team together. We got three victories that we were underdogs in,” Beckman said.

“He refused to let that (loss) happen and let our team believe in being an underdog. We beat a top 25 team in Minnesota. We beat Penn State on a last minute field goal. Lastly, we won against our rival which had not been done since 2002, up in Evanston. That speaks highly for the leadership he provided,” Beckman said.

Opposite of O’Toole, is Bulldogs senior quarterback Cody Sokol, whose continuous improvements throughout the season led the Bulldogs from scoring 18 points a game, to 13th in the country, averaging over 37 points per game.

“It all starts with Cody Sokol, our senior quarterback who I thought had an outstanding year for us as a transfer. He came in and did a great job of getting players to buy in, setting a real example as a leader with his toughness and the way he plays the game,” Holtz said.

With little over two weeks before their meeting at the Cotton Bowl, every bit of experience makes a difference for both the players, and the coaches. Beckman asked his team to raise their hand if they had ever been to Dallas before. He said that maybe ten or so raised their hand. For Holtz, and his coaching staff, they were able to make the four hour drive, (Three and a half, if you drive fast down I-20, according to Holtz) to the Dallas area, and coordinate some recruiting home visits.

Every second counts, and both coaches have had a lifetime of experience, growing up around their fathers, who were both coaches while Beckman, and Holtz were growing up. Holtz’s father Lou, was a coach at many schools, including Notre Dame. and is now an analyst at ESPN. Skip said that he will have a special treat this year, because his father and mother will be in attendance for the game, which will be the second time in 10 years, as Lou continues to cover collegiate football. He will be covering the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl on Christmas Eve.

“You talk about the experiences Tim (Beckman) and I have shared as coaches’ sons and it is in your blood. You do it because you love it. You do not do it for any other reason. You do it because you love it and the relationships you are able to build with the student-athletes,” Holtz said.

Holtz even joked about his son getting into the family business.

“I know my son, who is on the football team at Texas right now; if you ask him today, he will tell you he is getting into the family business. That is what he wants to do with his career,” Holtz said. “He wants to get in the family business and coach. It is something that has really been a blessing for me and Tim, just having the experiences we have had being around this great game,” Holtz said.

Beckman, who jokes about his initials being T.D., and his son’s being P.A., because his wife would not let there be two touchdowns running around, stated that his experience goes all the way back to when he was a toddler.

“We talked about this earlier today about what a unique thing this is. I do not know that there are really two coaches’ sons battling each other in a bowl game, which is kind of neat. Football has been my life,” Beckman said.

“I always tell everybody that I have 49 years of experience because I have been around it and guys like (Sam) Rutigliano and (Marty) Schottenheimer when pops was in the NFL. And I have been around people I have worked with like Urban Meyer and of course Jim Tressel, Mike Gundy and outstanding people. We are creatures of the people we have been around. I cannot be blessed more to have a father that took this game and coached this game for the student-athletes,” Beckman said.

Illinois was able to get some practice sessions last week. Beckman said that he does have a young staff, and he wants to get them equipped for the upcoming week of practices. He also said that his coordinators, Bill Cubit and Tim Banks, are in Champaign preparing as we speak.

“We feel it is very necessary for our program to have these opportunities to get on the field with our football players and work on the fundamentals,” Beckman said.

Holtz stated that his Bulldogs will practice Friday and Saturday, and that he will give them Sunday off, because that will be the last day that you can go recruiting.

“We will have staff splintered in nine different directions recruiting on Sunday. Then we will come back and practice Monday through Sunday in Ruston before coming here on the next Monday and practicing here until the bowl game,” Holtz said.

Ticket prices for the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl range from $25 for general admission seating to $125 for reserved seats. Tickets can be purchased through the bowl’s web site at Complimentary tickets are available to first responders and their families via signup at the bowls website.