Time to put Zook on the hot seat?

Time to put Zook on the hot seat?

By: Mike Nadel

By: Mike Nadel

By: Mike Nadel

By: Mike Nadel

Illinois football fan Ben Lenkart of Springfield read last week's column about Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and couldn't resist e-mailing me:

"Mike, I thought you might have mixed up your column notes when I read, 'He's either a poor evaluator of talent, an ineffective developer of players, an inadequate game-planner, a feeble motivator, a bad game coach ... or all of the above.'

"I was sure you were talking about Ron Zook, because those were the same words my Florida friends used when he took the Illinois job. If (athletic director) Ron Guenther wants to change his reputation of hiring mediocre – or worse – football coaches, he'd better give Zook the hook now. There are deserving, competent coaches available to fix a faltering program."

Yes, just one year after getting mentioned in national Coach of the Year conversations, Zook is receiving a different kind of "recognition" now.

He's all recruiting, no coaching. He's not a long-term solution. He's not a program-builder. How long before ESPN yakkers and other national pundits start putting Zook "on the hot seat"?

Justifying Saturday's loss to Ohio State by saying, "Fifty percent of the teams lost today," certainly won't win him any wide-reaching support.

Hey, coach: Fifty percent of the teams are eligible for one of the 873 bowl games ... and yours isn't one of them.

Seen this before

Illinois was unwatchable in Zook's first two seasons (fairly understandable, as he was cleaning up Ron Turner's mess) and has been one of the nation's biggest disappointments this year. By now, does anyone outside of Zook's family believe the 2007 run to the Rose Bowl wasn't a fluke?

As was the case at Florida, Zook has been heralded for bringing outstanding players to campus. And as was the case in Gainesville – where he lasted only three seasons between the wildly successful Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras – there are legitimate questions regarding his ability to "coach 'em up."

Zook benefits from the fact that Illinois isn't Florida. There's not a soul who expects the Illini to contend for a national title ANY year, let alone every year.

Still, while we try to figure out exactly what constitutes a "good year" for Illini football, we can be pretty certain 2008 doesn't qualify. Even if they close out the season Saturday with a victory at Northwestern to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible, this will have been an abject failure.

Bare market

Illinois fans have the right to expect more. At the very least, the team should win more games than it loses, especially when the Big Ten is in a down cycle.

Though Guenther likes to stick with coaches through thin and thinner – how else to explain Turner hanging on for eight mostly miserable seasons? – the AD is planning to retire in two years. Plus, several of Zook's most-hyped recruiting "gets" will be gone after one (Juice Williams, Vontae Davis, probably Arrelious Benn, possibly Martez Wilson) or two more seasons.

A good program makes steady progress. It doesn't lurch violently as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has this fall.

For two years, Illinois stock wallowed near its all-time low. In 2007, it almost reached its zenith. This year, it has failed to meet analysts' estimates.

When it comes to CEO Ron Zook, many Illini "shareholders" already are clamoring for new direction. He needs to restore their faith. Winning more than 50 percent of his games next season would be a nice start.

Mike Nadel is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. He can be reached via e-mail at mikenadel@sbcglobal.net.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


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LoyalIllini wrote on November 18, 2008 at 7:11 am

Thank you for inserting this voice of clarity into the IlliniHQ mix. It is time for Illini fans to insist on excellence and we aren't even close this year with Zook ... poor decisions by players (Juice especially), questionable play calling, Zook's analysis and decisions during the game don't give us an advantage, etc. Great recruiting has been a good start but to give big bucks and drive/fly to Champaign we need and deserve much more.

MarkHoekstra wrote on November 18, 2008 at 7:11 am

Hey Mike, how about concentrating your fire on Ron Guenther? 5 bowl games in 17 years! DETROIT! 6 home games!

slanky wrote on November 18, 2008 at 9:11 am

Oddly enough the fans that don't "give big bucks" and "fly" to games are willing to give Zook more leeway. On the back of skill-positions, heart and team leadership I think we're back on track next year.

LoyalIllini wrote on November 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Illinois is aggressively reaching for the next level academically, with fundraising, facilities, research and salaries. Sports needs to get to the next level now. The "heart and team leadership", not to mention skill position execution, was expected this year. It's time for Guenther to deliver now ... not think and hope.

IlliniNationsCapital wrote on November 18, 2008 at 4:11 pm

this is a dumb article. the bottom line is Zook brings in better talent than the UI deserves in football. Zook is being punished for bringing in high-caliber talent and not winning enough, whereas Turner/Tepper/etc just brought in lower-quality athletes and then met expectations. prior to Zook taking the Illini job, most of us would agree that any UI football coach who could win 6 or 7 games a year could be elected mayor. its time to realize that Illinois football doesnt draw 100,000 fans per game, is not located in a metro area, and is at least a generation away from being considered a big-time football school.

we ought to be darn thankful for Zook.

jjohnson wrote on November 18, 2008 at 5:11 pm

Hey, I give bucks and fly to games -- all 11 so far. Zook's biggest mistake was in having success too soon. Considering when he was hired, his first recruiting year players are juniors or red-shirt sophomores. Is this year disappointing? Sure. Does Zook get some blame? Sure. But if two years ago someone had suggested that the Illini would be hoping to finish 6-6 in 2008 and go to their first bowl game in seven years, the call would have been, "Great." Give the man 5-6 years, for pity's sake. I have yet to see him fumble once, throw and interception, of miss a tackle.

rmitchell wrote on November 18, 2008 at 7:11 pm

dear chief;

please go away. i had almost forgotten how divisive you were.

stimie1958 wrote on November 19, 2008 at 11:11 am

Well said Tom I don't think I could add much more to it!!