Tate: No joke, Illini might not be bad
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CHAMPAIGN – Illinois will win the Big Ten in football this year.
April Fool! Gotcha.
Relax, there are no other tricks up my sleeve, so let's consider something. Can anyone cite a law, a rule or a restriction preventing Ron Zook's 2010 team from moving up out of the 3-9 doldrums? Aren't the facilities upgraded and the administrative support solid? Doesn't Paul Petrino have enough swift receivers? Who has a better 1-2-3 punch at running back? Aren't the 300-pounders hardened from a winter of weight training?
There is a difference between hopeless and doable. At nearly every position, Illinois can plug in two experienced lettermen, many of these veterans representing some of the UI's best recruiting classes. Even if that's stretching things a bit, we've seen sicker dogs start wagging their tails.
Part of the problem is an erratic tradition that spreads the seeds of negativism. There were no encouraging fans waving banners when the Illini returned home from shameful, mid-October losses at Indiana and Purdue. The idea of actually defeating Northwestern is becoming too much to hope for. The last two plays in the 53-52 loss against Fresno State belong in Ripley's Believe It or Not. As for Missouri, I can't even bring myself to think about it.
Nevertheless. Nevertheless – and Cubs fans understand this – hope should, and does, spring eternal.
An analysis of bodies on the east practice field indicates Illinois should be fully competitive in nine of 11 games, excluding clearly superior Ohio State and Penn State. Yes, the schedule calls for 12 games but, as stated, I can't bring myself to think about Missouri ... and barely have enough faith left to ponder Northwestern.
Following a massive and expensive staff shakeup, Zook is viewed as under pressure. When the short list is formed of coaches under the gun, his name will be near the top. But he probably has more time. This has all the look of a two-year operation.
Zook was asked Wednesday whether speculation might have impacted recruiting, which was less than spectacular this past winter.
"These guys (players) understand the pressure of the business. We want interest, we want pressure, that's part of the business. I don't feel any more pressure than when I first got here" was the response.
So if some view it as a make-or-break season – and there are few indications that is the case – he is OK with it.
"All I can do is all I can do," Zook said. "There have been a lot of guys in that situation before, and some of them were the best (coaches)."
Practices will be viewable each Saturday through the spring game April 24 but will be closed during the one-hour team portion on certain days when, presumably, they'll work on something special. That policy earns agreement here because, well ... why let Missouri know what you're planning, even if Illinois triumphing in St. Louis is as likely as Alice remaining in Wonderland.
The key is not whether Zook has enough talent to return to 2007 fantasyland – remember, the Rose Bowl – but whether the new organization, with major changes in strategy, can fuse together for a concerted push. Early losses against strong teams sent the club south last season. That danger still exists.
Shawn Wax, in confirming his decision to leave the athletic department in two weeks, said Wednesday that UI presentations made to three corporations for Assembly Hall naming rights were well received. As associate director for resource development, Wax has been a lead fundraiser in the quest to renovate the Hall, with naming rights requiring as much as $60 million to kick off the operation. Corporate decisions, yes or no, are expected late this year.
"Unofficially, I think we are in fantastic shape," Wax said. "Once that is done, our staff will move forward in the area of premium seating with the experience of Memorial Stadium behind them.
"I feel proud of what we have accomplished in our fundraising campaigns, endowment growth and in doubling our football season tickets from 22,000 to more than 44,000. Change is tough on any level, and it is particularly tough to walk away from the donors and people I have worked with."
Wax indicated he will be based locally in the private sector (not the university or the UI Foundation), keeping a promise with wife Terri Sullivan not to interfere with her career as Illini softball coach. Wax said the timing of the UI separation plan and the March 10 birth of their daughter, Macy, were considerations in his decision.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.