Coach search is under way
The Fighting Illini are looking for the next gridiron savior.
If a second or third marriage is often described as a triumph of hope over experience, what is there to say about the University of Illinois searching for its eighth head football coach since the 1970 firing of Jim Valek?
That's ancient history — 41 years — to many people.
But the long line of head football coaches who followed Valek speaks volumes about the difficult job Fighting Illini athletic director Mike Thomas faces in choosing the successor to the ousted Ron Zook.
Of the seven coaches who've held the job after Valek, only one (John Mackovic left Illinois for the University of Texas) went of his own free will.
Even though Mike White's teams only won seven games in his last two seasons, he was successful enough to have stayed. But after a second go-round with the NCAA, even White was shown the door.
Most of the UI's recent coaches — Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Zook — had their moments of glory — big wins over good teams and bowl games. But none of them was able to achieve and then maintain a winning program.
Ultimately, they lost games, fan support and their jobs.
Zook came to the UI seven years ago after a rocky tenure at Florida. His first game at Illinois — a 2005 come-from-behind overtime win against Rutgers — left most fans exhilarated, but his first year was otherwise nightmarish.
Still, strong recruiting provided grounds for optimism, and, in just his third season, Zook's team achieved thrilling victories over Penn State and Wisconsin at home and against No. 1-ranked Ohio State on the road to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. Fans hoped and expected that winning would become a way of life.
But it was mostly up and down from there. Zook's 2010 team finished 7-6 after winning the Texas Bowl over Baylor.
This year's fast 6-0 start, which included thrilling wins over Arizona State and Northwestern, was followed by a slow finish (0-6) and a horrendous final-game loss at Minnesota.
All the coaches Illinois has hired over the past 40 years knew football. They all hired talented assistants. They all worked like dogs to achieve success. All but one of them failed.
It is, of course, not impossible to win consistently at Illinois. If it can be done elsewhere, it can be done here.
Look at the job Wisconsin has done in resurrecting its program from the dregs.
Consider what Kansas State achieved under head coach Bill Snyder, who in his first tour of duty there presided over what may be the greatest turnaround in any sport in college history.
Athletic director Mike Thomas is correct when he notes that the UI's football program is stronger now than it was when Zook started, that Illinois plays in a great conference, that Illinois has tremendous facilities and that the Illinois job will be attractive to any number of ambitious coaches.
But be not deceived by overly confident rhetoric. The road ahead is filled with obstacles.
The UI has a long, sometimes-glorious football tradition. But that tradition also has included looking for a new coach every five to seven years.