Tate: An open letter to Coach Zook

Tate: An open letter to Coach Zook

For more on UI football, click here to read Bob Asmussen's latest chat.

Dear Coach Zook,

Here's the best deal you'll get this week. Beat Michigan on Saturday and all is forgiven. OK, maybe not all, but a long overdue triumph would certainly take pressure off you and your boss.

This is the stadium, remember, that was dedicated with a 39-14 defeat of the Wolverines. Red Grange ran wild. It was here that the Illini upset Tommy Harmon & Co., 7-0, in 1936. It was on this snow-covered field that Tommy O'Connell passed to Rex Smith for a 7-0 win in the UI's last undefeated season of 1951. There is history in this series, but it is long-ago history. Now, all these decades later, we look back on a single home win – 16-6 in 1983 – in the last 51 years.

Imagine how a victory would uplift your athletes and your fans. And imagine what it would do for your guy, Coach Guenther. In what might be described as psychological transference, the heat has switched from you to the athletic director. By coming out publicly for you in the midst of a nine-game losing streak against I-A teams, he has taken a position opposed by more than 90 percent of Illini Nation.

If this tailspin isn't turned, at some point you'll be able to take your millions and go to the next stop in your quasi-military career. It'll be your 12th station since 1980. You're accustomed to it. But Ron Guenther LIVES HERE. This is his home. He was a teammate of Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski, the Illini MVP in 1966, the director who cleaned up the mess left by Neale Stoner, the visionary who changed the look of the south campus and renovated Memorial Stadium. He succeeded Ray Eliot and Dike Eddleman as Mr. Illini.

But now, after announcing his determination to retain you another year, his legacy is changing. He is the center target on the dartboard. Irate fans are firing up Internet Web sites while planning all manner of insults from bumper stickers to paper bags with punched eyeholes.

Ron, you have chastised me because, in your view, I "don't believe." That's true, although I "believed" the Illini would be improved over last season. But my job is to follow the team, not to believe in it.

The present uproar is, for me, similar to the Chief Illiniwek case.

When Chief Illiniwek danced at halftime, I seldom paid attention. I watched or I didn't watch, it didn't matter. My strongly felt support was based on what I consider the unnecessary punishment of the thousands who take the Chief seriously. For many of them, his dance aroused a deeply felt emotion, almost a religious-type experience. I felt for them. But, personally, my feelings were related by a relative who once said, "I never understood why so many people revere the Chief, and I never understood why the opponents care."

Once again, when the overwhelming majority of fans feel strongly about something, I believe they should be listened to. And, ultimately, they WILL BE listened to because the unrest is enormous and, down the road, the sale of tickets will be impacted.

Guenther is in a financial bind at a bad economic time. It would take nearly $2 million in buyouts for ousted staff next year alone (and $1.3 million for three years thereafter) but, if losing continues under this staff, the athletic department would probably lose that much in decreased football sales in 2010.

With an excellent advance on season tickets, the budget won't be hurt in the short term. Saturday's crowd will be good. And they're selling the sightline-challenged five front rows for Northwestern. But don't count on a big turnout for Fresno State on Dec. 5, and those pondering next year's sales are reminded that, in Ron Turner's last 10 home games, the Illini drew 55,000 once (for Michigan) and showed numbers as low as 38,688 and 41,458. We could be headed there again in 2010.

Ron, my greatest concern is saved for last. You probably haven't considered this, but Guenther is not the last word on the UI campus. In order to receive approval for everything he does, his decisions must be reasonable and easily justified.

Up to now, that has been the case. But if the team continues to fizzle – again, this could change with a win Saturday – this mess will land on the desk of Stan Ikenberry in little more than five weeks. As interim president and chancellor, he has far bigger fish to fry. He is baby-sitting a revamped Board of Trustees. Still-unfunded Lincoln Hall drifts along with little outcry. All manner of problems abound. But it is football that stirs the innards and captivates his constituency. Sure, it is a case of misplaced priorities, but that's the way it is.

If the season ends 1-11, this legendary president will find himself in the crosshairs of a can't-win situation. If he doesn't overrule Guenther, a furious Illini Nation will think he isn't engaged and is willingly permitting a mistake to be carried out. He would become the dartboard and his legacy impacted. And remember, he LIVES HERE, too. He is part of the community. No one is more respected.

If, on the other hand, he overrules Guenther, he could face a dilemma in the athletic department. How would Guenther react? How would that affect fundraising and the Assembly Hall plan? And if the coaches are fired, who chooses the successor? Will Guenther stay beyond December 2010 or, if he intends to step down, what is the timing (December? April?) for the start of that search? And with all these decisions little more than five weeks off ... oh, think about it.

There is only one good answer. Turn this losing stampede, Coach Zook. Give Illini Nation a week to smile. This is becoming much too grim.

Regards, Loren

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

OrlandoIllini wrote on October 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

For the reasons Loren stated, and other reasons as well, Ikenberry will throw Illini football under the bus at least as quickly as he threw Illini basketball under the bus in 1990.

--Orlando Illini

STUMPWALSH wrote on October 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm


ras0710 wrote on October 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Wait aren't we the fans that hated Coach Weber in 2003, loved him in 2004, 2005, hated him in 2007, 2008, started to love him again last year and now he is the best? Maybe part of the problem is that we-me included- think we are some elite school for Football and Basketball and we act like it though history shows that we are not. I am not a rocket scientist Loren, but I am pretty sure that this doesn't help anything except put even more pressure on everyone involved. Great job there! You and Zook can now trade insults back and forth. No one cares if he chastised you or not- lose your own ego. Gee, I am pretty sure that no one in the entire football program realizes that if they don't win here they are guaranteed a losing season. Wow, can I write for Illini HQ to. I am pretty sure I can write a open letter as well regarding how journalists should keep their personal feelings outside of their writing.

flyinIL wrote on October 27, 2009 at 10:10 pm


tate didn't write one false word in that letter. people get upset when things they care about screw up or are embarrasing. that's why good parents discipline their children: they don't want them to grow up and become illini football.

just because i want zook fired doesn't mean i'm a bad fan - it means i really care and want to see the team succeed. normally, i don't root for anyone to be fired; however, i have little sympathy for those with the zooker's money. i, too, live in SEC country and we all know that in the SEC, zook would have already been canned. i keep repeating it, but if he's doesn't get rid of zook NOW, the program will lose another 3 to 5 years.

THE CULTURE OF ILLINI FOOTBALL MUST CHANGE. all of this crap has to end and guenther is the only one who can change that right now. we all know zook can't.



Illinigrad wrote on October 28, 2009 at 12:10 am

I hope we win these last five games and become bowl eligible. It would be wonderful. But, I don't see such miracles happening. Coach Zook has repeatedly shown that he is not head coaching material. A temporary mirage was created by the Rose Bowl season when he had a group of talented players who could win probably in spite of the coaching staff. Clearly reality has set in with the current string of losses. If this streak continues RG will be forced to fire Zook and start over. Does anyone believe a head coach can oversee or put together a competent staff when he can't figure out basic time out strategy to snatch victory from certain defeat? OR who goes for two-point conversations when there is no earthly reason to do so. Assuming we are not bowl eligible, I hope RG has the wisdom to end this charade.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on October 28, 2009 at 8:10 am

A win this Sat over MI is welcome, but DOES NOT take pressure off of Zook and RG in my opinion. There have been too many wrongs that cannot be righted at this point, let alone by winning 1 game.

MarkHoekstra wrote on October 28, 2009 at 8:10 am

Come on Loren! Calling Ron Guenther "Mr. Illini" is an absolute insult to the intelligence of Illini Nation. Under "Coach" Guenther the football program is 79-123-2. 5 bowl games in 17, about to be 18, seasons. And he called Warren Carter an "idiot." Would Bob Zuppke ever call a student-athlete an "idiot" while seated on press row? Please try to write this article from a location other than under Guenther's desk.

Ghost77 wrote on October 28, 2009 at 8:10 am

Illinois has now explored the depths of the Big Ten basement under three consecutive coaches. At some point, that has to reflect on the one-man search committee. Ron Guenther inherited one of those coaches, but hired the other two. No program that takes football even close to seriously would allow him another hire.

ballcoach wrote on October 28, 2009 at 9:10 am


You are a press writer, not a fan. You should only wear News Gazette stuff to games. You should never wear Illini gear. You should never be allowed to travel with the team ever again. You should have to purchase a ticket to any Illini Event.


Last I checked, Ron Zook LIVES HERE ALSO.

ax474 wrote on October 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

Does Loren Tate do anything other than whine and complain? I think every article that I have ever read by him, he is complaining about something.

Illinigrad wrote on October 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

Loren: You forgot (conveniently?) that John Mac. followed Stoner as AD. I think J. Mac did more cleaning up than RG. Solid reporting is first of all based on getting the facts straight to your reading audience.

Fourtfour wrote on October 28, 2009 at 10:10 am
Profile Picture

Can somebody please tell me where in the world Guenther coached? This is getting ridiculous!

dgcrow wrote on October 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Mr. Tate: Appreciate your column and your thoughts. But with all due respect, I don't think a win over Michigan will accomplish as much as you think. Perhaps if the Illini win ALL of their remaining games it might. Otherwise, Zook has to go. If Mr. Guenther doesn't have the courage to fire him, then he should go, too. I'm sure Illinois can get another AD that's just as good at fund raising.

Ilivehere wrote on October 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

While your letter make a point of dissatisfaction from everyone toward the football team, I am disappointed in the quality of the open letter.

Along with Coach Zook and RG, I think you should leave your job and enjoy retirement.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the paper has declined with your quality of work, average at best. Good luck.

jhwaddell wrote on October 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Unfortunately, Loren has fallen victim to the same siren song that has claimed many reporters over the last several years. There is a fine line between writing editorials and being a reporter. Beware the person that writes editorials under the guise of a reporter to promote their own agenda.

Apparently I missed the election where Illini Nation voted and 90% elected Loren to speak on their behalf. Or was it a call in vote to express support or disdain for Coach Zook that led to 90% of Illini Nation wanting Zook gone - I missed that one, also.

It's actually pretty craven, Loren, to write your editorial expressing your own views, while hiding behind the "statistics" that "Ron Guenther has taken a position opposed to 90% of Illini Nation".

While I alone don't represent 10% of Illini Nation, let me say that I, for one, fully support Coach Zook and will be glad to have him back on our sidelines next year. Has he been perfect? No, but that is a measure that any of us, aside from Loren, would fall far short of. If you can show me a coach that would fully meet the expectations of every fan, great. I would argue that person doesn't exist, however, and in that absence will continue to support a coach who has done his job with integrity and with passion.

I'm sure that Loren is a diehard fan who has forgotten more Illini history than I'll ever know. The sad thing is that he is also the fan with the "power of the pen" who can write and claim support of Illini Nation without ever having to back it up. Man up, Loren, and at least have the stones to say what this really is - one fan's rant against the coach - instead of hiding behind "Illini Nation".

TotalIlliniFan wrote on October 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Not being perfect is a laughable standard on which to let Zook off the hook. He is butting up against just the opposite. I am OK with Loren's guestimate of 90% - that feels about right.

jhwaddell wrote on October 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

To be clear - I'm not suggesting letting him off the hook, but I'm also not ready to pull the hook, either. I think he's got a short runway to turn it around, but I support him being here at least next year to make that happen.

kfj wrote on October 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Loren states, "By coming out publicly for you in the midst of a nine-game losing streak against I-A teams, he has taken a position opposed by more than 90 percent of Illini Nation." Where did you get that percentage from? ... You must be only reading the above comments. There are lots of us who STILL support the coach and the team. Thanks to the Illinois AD for putting to rest the rumors of Coach Zook being fired at the end of the season. Go Illini!!

mrillinifan wrote on October 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Good but stating the obvious. IMO beating Michigan or going undefeated the rest of the season will not change my mind. 1 good season in 5 years? Having a crap poor record with above average talent tells me 1 thing and that it is time for a change from top to bottom.

Speaking for just me I would like to see a coach that can take us to a bowl game of anykind 7 out of 10 times. Probably 1/2 of all division 1 teams will make it to a bowl game.

Remember excuses are like buttholes...everybody's got them.

illiniindian wrote on October 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm

These comments make no sense. Loren has every right to place a commentary.

Many newspapers do this. It keeps things interesting.

Keep it up Loren!

laptop wrote on October 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm


Just admit it, you want Guenther's job and always have! When things don't go your way, then you write about it and complain. Then when the powers to be don't listen you cry like a baby. Retirement for good sounds good to me.

illinicalvin wrote on October 28, 2009 at 6:10 pm

A lot of these positive comments are coming from the DIA who are seeing public outcry develop. On the 3 established message boards, maybe 3-5% of long-term established posters would even think of bringing Zook back next year. Ballcoach is probably Dan Disch - same type of ill-though, fails-to-get-it response I got when I emailed him showing displeasure with his remarks about Illinois (yes, the full remarks).

Loren needs to retire. This column is poorly written (who cares about your Chief Illiniwek views?) and misses the obvious point: that Guenther's reputation is already established and he is part of the problem. But Tate refuses to bluntly call out "Mr. Illini" (!) and actually gives him credit for something he didn't do (cleaning up the DIA 1990-92ish; that was Mackovic, Loren).

If Illinois is going to have success in football - long-term sustained Wisconsin/Iowa-style success (which is reachable) - we need an athletic director who knows how to put the pieces in place. Guenther does not.

Martin09 wrote on October 28, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Loren,thanks again for your world class insight into the latest crisis in Illini Nation.You have more insight,knowledge and wisdom than the above bloggers combined.Remember that is all that they are.Most would love to do what you do,but they can't,so they blog.The only criticism that I have seen from blog nation that has any merit at all,speaks to the weakness of Ron Guenther.He was never qualified to be AD.he is our Bush 43!

IlliniOllie wrote on October 28, 2009 at 8:10 pm

"Mr. Illini"? Come on, Loren. If you asked Illini fans to come up with a list of people they'd think of as candidates for "Mr. Illini", Ron Guenther wouldn't be in the top 50.

Guenther played football with Butkus and Grabowski. So did 150 other guys. He oversaw a renovation of half the stadium that only took place after every other Big Ten school had had a renovation (or two).

Really, your love for Guenther is not only embarrassing, but clearly shows your inability to look objectively at an AD who has overseen a 79-123-2 record on the football field.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on October 28, 2009 at 8:10 pm

ballcoach must have requested BigTenFan's post be removed since it was, just for saying: ballcoach = Disch. So it's true?

lincoln wrote on October 29, 2009 at 9:10 am

Loren, Good column, but I'd like to point out a mistake in your facts.

Illinois did not beat Michigan and Tom Harmon 7-0 at memorial stadium in 1936. They won 9-6 on a blocked punt in Ann Arbor on Oct. 31. I know. my Dad played in the game for Michigan. Tom Harmon was a senoir in HS in 1936.