Thomas, standing in the corner of the end zone near the Illini locker room entrance, wanted to let the players know he was proud of the performance. But he was also patiently scanning the scene for coach Tim Beckman.
Beckman was one of the last to exit the field, perhaps straggling behind to soak in his first victory for as long as he could. He and Thomas first shook hands but ended with a hug and shared a laugh.
This was how both men envisioned the first embrace would go.
“Mike Thomas was gracious enough to give me the game ball, but this is not my game ball,” Beckman said. “This is the team’s game ball. That game ball will sit right there, we’re going to get it framed and this is the first victory of the new era.”
For Thomas and fans alike, there was much to like in Beckman’s debut.
The Illini scored on the fourth play of the game – a 64-yard reception by junior receiver Ryan Lankford that gave Illinois a lead it would not relinquish. And the defense forced four turnovers, including a game-sealing interception returned for a touchdown by senior Ashante Williams.
“We wanted to do it for coach Beckman,” senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “All the guys in the locker room love him. We really feel like he’s bringing in a new era. We really wanted to win it for him. He was given the team ball and it feels really great to get this first win.”
In turn, there were rough spots of note. An early morning downpour of rain canceled many pregame festivities and severely cut into the expected attendance. And as the rain moved away for good, so too did the offense’s effectiveness. The Illini managed only 61 yards in the second half, most of which was played without starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
The junior’s left ankle, which was sprained early in the third quarter, will be a hot topic this week as his status for the near future was anybody’s guess following the game.
But none of the negatives mattered in the moments directly following the game. As Beckman entered the locker room, the team’s celebration could be heard through the walls surrounding Zuppke Field.
“Guys were in there running around, running wild,” Lankford said. “It feels good to get a win. It really sent coach Beckman in the right direction.”
Said Beckman: “If you’ve been in our locker room before… we don’t let anybody walk on that (carpeted) ‘I’ until you’ve won a victory. We celebrated as a football team because each victory is huge in the game of football when you get at the most 14 opportunities.”
Beckman was soaking wet by the time he made his way to the podium for his post-game media session. It wasn’t from the inclement, either. It was a welcomed byproduct of the celebration, where water and whatnot had been thrown around with Beckman as a primary target.
“When we win, we’re going to celebrate,” he said. "When we lose, if we do lose, we ain’t celebrating.
“I guess you’d say winning is a fragile thing, but it’s something that you’ve got to cherish. This team is going to cherish winning.”
Saturday was all about firsts and establishing traditions and setting the tone and learning and getting better while still winning.
Sure, everything didn’t go as planned, but the overall goal was achieved. Even so, Beckman was caught up in the finer details well after none of them had any impact on the outcome. As he stood back and thought about it, he managed to find an obscure area for improvement.
“The only thing that we did not do, that I did not coach very well -- after every one of our football games we’re going to get over there with the band,” he said. “That was one of my faults. After the football game we’re going to get over there with the band because they’re a huge support for us.”