When the casual observer sees that Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was rewarded with a raise and contract extension Wednesday, the first thought might have been, "Why?"
This is, after all, a team that won just one conference game this past season, a team that got its signature win in Week 2 against Cincinnati.
But Cubit's influence in his first year with the Illini might have been the difference between this season's 4-8 finish and a potential repeat of the 2-10 campaign in head coach Tim Beckman's first year in Champaign. Cubit came in and radically transformed an offense that finished close to dead last in the country in 2012 and made it one of the Big Ten's most threatening — seriously — and dramatically elevated its nationwide standing.
And because of it, Cubit's salary was raised to $500,000 a year and his contract was extended through the 2015 season, Beckman announced Wednesday.
"Bill Cubit proved to us why he is considered one of the top offensive coaches in the nation after our offense made dramatic improvement from 2012," Beckman said in a statement. "His coaching and play-calling experience was a terrific addition to the program a year ago, and this assures continuity at a very critical position on the staff. ... I'm very happy that we were able to do this for Bill."
Cubit — along with help from a career year from a fully healthy Nathan Scheelhaase in his fourth year as the Illini quarterback — took Illinois' 119th-ranked offense and worked wonders. In 2012, the Illini averaged 16.7 points per game on 296.7 yards of offense a game, ranking 119th in both categories. In 2013, the orange and blue scored 29.7 points per game, ranking 61st in the nation, on 426.7 yards per game, good for 52nd in the country.
In the Big Ten alone, Cubit bumped the Illini from dead last in scoring offense and total offense to seventh and fifth in those respective categories. Illinois ranked 11th in passing offense in 2012, compared to second in 2013. This season, Scheelhaase led the conference in passing and total offense.
But Cubit, as he did all season, heaped all the praise on his players.
"I walked out of last spring, and I can remember sitting there going, 'How are we going to move the ball?' But they just played," Cubit said to reporters Wednesday. "You give them a plan, make them understand the plan and go a hundred miles an hour. Even some games we had over 600 yards, I said, 'It's still not good enough. We left too many yards out there.' And the things I like about our kids is they sit there and they want more. And we've got a big job ahead of us next year, and it all starts in the spring."
Despite finishing a second straight season under Beckman in disappointment, offense was hardly the Illini's problem. Scheelhaase and playmakers such as running back Josh Ferguson and wideout Steve Hull kept Illinois in many games. The Illini scored a total of 137 in its three non-conference wins, scored a total of 67 points in losses to ranked opponents Wisconsin and Ohio State, and they had chances to win games that eventually got away against Washington, Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.
So though Beckman's future is somewhat hazy — it will at least last into next season, athletic director Mike Thomas stated in an interview — Cubit is for now being rewarded for a job well done. Next year's challenge now becomes doing it again without Scheelhaase. Though a great running back in Ferguson will be back in the fold, there will be a new quarterback, be it one of this year's backups Reilly O'Toole or Aaron Bailey or Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt.
"I'm very excited to be able to continue what we began building this past season," Cubit said in the statement. "We're looking forward to a lot of success next season. We have a very good core group of linemen, tight ends and running backs returning, and a talented and deep group of quarterbacks to start with. We'll be looking for some wide receivers to emerge this spring and summer, but I certainly don't expect a drop off in 2014."
"The expectations, when you look at 11 different areas we improved over 60 spots, I think one was 94, How much further can go go than 94?" Cubit said to reporters Wednesday. "The one stat, I think we were 21st in the country in third downs. That's pretty impressive, what our kids did. Now we've got to build on that, too. It's a challenge, and I'm really looking forward to it. I think our kids are really excited. I just walked through the weight room. A bunch of kids come up there, they're really excited. It makes you feel good that you can be part of something that could be great."