Tate: Is it time to sack Zook?
Heat is coming, but I see no reason to rush decision
My media contacts and closest associates are hammering me to join in calling for an end to the Ron Zook era at Illinois. Saturday's nonperformance against Michigan did them in.
They want me to get out front. My question: What's the hurry? Shouldn't we join new athletic director Mike Thomas in waiting until all the information is in from the final two games? Let the dust settle, consider all options, analyze the finances, check who might be available, and conclude what's best for the future.
All assumptions are, of course, based on the likelihood of losing a fifth straight against Wisconsin. Even Zook, seemingly at a loss to explain Saturday's collapse, admits "nobody gives us a chance." But for some reason, Illinois is only a two-TD underdog, and that's a lot closer than where the world champion Cardinals stood in September. Strange things happen in sports. Let's allow it to play out.
It's no secret that Zook never impressed me as the right person to rebuild the program. I'm not his kind of scribe, and he's not my kind of coach. I fall in with the fan who stated: "He is acceptable to me on the premise that I was born to suffer."
To be fair, Zook is a worker with the right motives, and he had his good moments. He rode new coordinators to a 7-6 season in 2010, and if the Illini split the last two, a 7-5 regular season record will be second best in a decade.
But recruiting has become a major concern. In his early years there were positive signs. Not lately. The D.C. pipeline is dead, and recruiting has tailed off, particularly in the home state where nearly all the 2012 blue-chippers have elected to go elsewhere.
No, I don't think the recent incidents on campus should affect the decision. College students everywhere party until the early-morning hours, and football players are more likely than most to get in trouble. And let's remember that Illinois is down in the pecking order and doesn't always attract the super-athlete who is also in good academic standing. Ohio State and Michigan get most of those. We are forever fooling ourselves about the quality of UI football talent.
On that subject, it wasn't Trulon Henry's fault, and I believe in second chances, but who else had a 27-year-old squad member with a prison record getting shot? This won't read well in Winnetka.
My concerns are that Zook lacks the inspirational powers or scheme adjustments to save a sinking ship. He has never been sufficiently involved with the offense to energize it. And his work with special teams has Illinois abominably poor in returns and coverage. Blocked kicks and fumbled punts have become routine. When he at long last inserted Terry Hawthorne on Saturday, his 6-yard punt return was the second longest in 10 games.
We've seen the problems, and we've seen the mistakes. But rushing to judgment doesn't accomplish anything. Thomas was brought in precisely to deal with this, and ever-hopeful Illini Nation will look to him for the right decision.
Everybody in the pool
Zook could have had the Ole Miss coaching job late in 2004 when the UI's Ron Guenther beat the Rebels to the punch.
Now, ironically, Mississippi is back in the search along with Penn State, Arizona, Tulane, New Mexico and probably Ohio State. The number will grow.
It is interesting to hear Ole Miss' likely preferences since the program, like the UI, is perennially in the bottom half of its conference.
Let's start with Urban Meyer. If health allows, he's going to be a hot item for Penn State or Ohio State. He's out of reach for Mississippi (Illinois).
The list starts with Mike Leach, Texas Tech's former offensive guru who is more likely than anyone to quickly uplift a team ... if his personal peccadilloes don't get in the way. And Rich Rodriguez, who had excellent credentials until he went to Michigan, wants back in the business.
Those are special cases. Then come such head coaches — remember, this is a Southern search — as South Florida's Skip Holtz, Cincinnati's Butch Jones, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, Southern Mississippi's Larry Fedora, SMU's June Jones, Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze and Baylor's Art Briles. These are coaches who might be willing to move for the prestige of the SEC.
Among offensive coordinators mentioned are Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Clemson's Chad Morris, Oklahoma's Josh Heupel, Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, TCU's Justin Fuente and Texas Tech's Neal Brown.
These are some of the hot names. But is there one with the special qualities to turn Ole Miss or a program on that level?
There weren't many octogenarians among the 62,000-plus Sunday at Soldier Field. Some women, but not many. A few kids. This is a raucous, blue-collar, beer-guzzling crowd of hardy fanatics in jeans, sturdy men wearing Butkus or Urlacher jerseys, and knowledgeable in the words to "Bear Down, Chicago Bears."
They cheer louder, they complain louder, they sing louder.
They come to intimidate and make a difference, and when the Lions fumbled twice early they thought they had something to do with it. The game disintegrated quickly with three incredible Devin Hester punt returns (one for a TD) and two Chicago pick sixes just after halftime. But the lasting memory on this wind-swept day was the fervor of the crowd, as compared to the 60,000 family types in attendance the day before at Memorial Stadium.
Soldier Field came alive with a ferocity that simply doesn't exist here. As we saw back when the Bears played at Memorial Stadium, these antagonistic males arrive with different motives. They are concerned with the point spread and their fantasy favorites. They criticize everything. They want another beer.
Generally speaking, they have more invested. Whereas Illini parking is the best anywhere, it's tough getting to Soldier Field, particularly from the large tailgating areas. Buses haul folks in. And the cost: Wow! The place is sold out and there were no gaps Sunday, no students arriving late and leaving early. My single 20-yard line seat in Row 7 of the second deck cost more than $300 and required a $9,000 season ticket seat license by the owner. That's right. Four seats required $36,000 (a single, lifetime payment) in that spot before buying a ticket.
The NFL is a different world. UI fans don't appreciate the convenience of attending a game here. But, you're right, any outlay of money and time is too much when Michigan is allowed to dominate so thoroughly.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.