Tate: Timing everything for Zook

The elephant in the corner just raised his trunk. But he hasn't trumpeted yet.

The big fellow was aroused by consecutive UI football losses to Ohio State and Purdue, but he won't express himself until he gets more information from Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Come late November, the discussion will leave the corner of the room and take center stage. Is seventh-year coach Ron Zook the right leader for Illinois football in the future? Whether it is fans or stay-at-homes, spoken or unspoken, this subject dominates the collective mind. Any discussion of Illini football winds up there.

But wait. The Illini could finish 10-2, and wins against Penn State and Wisconsin could give them a share of the Leaders Division title and throw them into the first Big Ten title game. That surely would earn Zook an extension. Or the Illini could finish 6-6 (lose to Minnesota, again?) and possibly influence UI leaders to buy up the last two years of his contract.

Of course, the season record probably will be somewhere in between, which could make it a hand-wringing decision for new athletic director Mike Thomas. That's why they're paying him the big bucks. Ultimately, it'll boil down to what Thomas and UI President Michael Hogan perceive as best. If they're on the same page — whatever that is — that's the way it will go.

Holes to fill

Zook was in this shaky position two years ago (after 5-7 and 3-9 seasons) when then-director Ron Guenther seriously considered his options, didn't see a better choice that he could attract, and provided Zook with the funds to hire two high-caliber assistants to run the offense (Paul Petrino) and the defense (Vic Koenning).

In so doing, it appeared last season that each coordinator had taken over their respective halves of the team. This was not entirely correct because it didn't take into consideration the on-field aspects of special teams and game management, for which Zook has full say in what have become weekly dual targets of criticism. Nor is recruiting going well, a concern that won't be helped if the Illini finish on a sour note.

Thomas will have multiple choices. He could (1) extend Zook's two-year contract, (2) let him continue with the same contract, (3) save dollars by handing Petrino his first head coaching job or (4) hire someone from outside at great expense, a move that might mean changing the entire staff.

As a veteran AD who upgraded the Cincinnati program with the hiring of Brian Kelly, it is presumed he has knowledge of the marketplace and the up-and-comers ... if it comes to that.

Sordid history

The Illinois football job is a killer. It has become a graveyard for coaches. Zook, now 34-47, is the ninth coach since Ray Eliot retired in 1959. Pete Elliott and Mike White were obliged to step down due to NCAA violations, five were fired for losing too many games, and only John Mackovic left on his own terms.

In this case, the consideration will deal with more than the record, which at worst should be 7-5 (the second-best UI record in 10 years). Other factors to be taken into account are attendance, the general fan attitude, the look of recruiting, coaching salaries and possible buyouts.

Nor should the future schedule be overlooked. Illinois took advantage of a highly favorable home slate to jump out 6-0. But they'll be catching Cincinnati and Washington (both home) in 2013, and the conference schedule that year will find Nebraska and Michigan State replacing Minnesota and Michigan.

Now, if the last two Saturdays are an indication, the Thomas honeymoon is over. He must soon tackle the toughest part of his job, one that is flying toward him like a flaming arrow in the night.

Zook dodged and extinguished this kind of arrow two years ago. He got a reprieve from the man who originally hired him. His Illini responded by winning the Texas Bowl. When they opened 6-0, the Illini were 10-3 over a stretch of 13 games in which their only losses came by 2, 4 and 2 points.

Suddenly, the loss at Purdue sent negative vibes through a fandom that had grown expectant, and we are reminded that if the slump continues, different administrators will be engaged in the decision.

Illinois desperately needs a win in Happy Valley. A losing streak would turn Illini Nation buzz into a piercing cry for help, and that big old elephant would be poised to blast.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Heat’s on
Each Saturday, we put a coach on the hot seat. Ron Zook hasn’t made the cut so far:
Oct. 22    Robb Akey, Idaho
Oct. 15    Joker Phillips, Kentucky
Oct. 8    Mike Sherman, Texas A&M
Oct. 1    Dan Enos, Central Michigan
Sept. 24    Mike Stoops, Arizona
Sept. 17    Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Sept. 10    Mark Richt, Georgia
Sept. 3    Luke Fickell, Ohio State
 

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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illiniart wrote on October 27, 2011 at 10:10 am

It's obvious that the issue of Zook's future is on the minds of many people. However, is there a need to write about it constantly? Also, the offense has sputtered recently and did in several games last year against weak competition. Also, we appear to not be getting the top recruits on offense. Doesn't the OC play a role in that? How does that make Petrino a candidate for the job? Why do you continue to suggest him as an option? If we are ever going to get this program on the right track it is going to take a high profile coach who we pay big bucks.....and a local press that is more supportive of the program.

illini82 wrote on October 27, 2011 at 11:10 am

It's pretty obvious that if Illinois goes 10-2 the rest of the way Zook will be extended or if they go 0-6 to end up 6-6 that Zook is likely gone. The problem as Tate points out is somewhere "in between" which is the most likely outcome.

While Tate thinks an 8 or 9 win season may also mean hand wringing I think an 8 and especially a 9 win REGULAR season likely protects Zook. That may be the right thing to do if you believe that continuity and stability is the friend of any program. That means that Illinois wins one or two among PSU, Mich and Wisconsin. That's especially the case if we win two among those three opponents. Get to 9 wins and you likely get a Jan 2 bowl as well. Hard to fire a guy for that.

The real "number" that will bring hand-wringing at least to Mike Thomas is if we end up with a 7-5 regular season record. That probably means we lose the next 3 and beat hapless Minnesota. We'll go to a bowl but won't know the outcome of that until late December/early January. Win that game and we'll have 8 wins. Not bad at least by Illinois' historical standards.

The problem with that scenario is that we'll have a month long "dead zone" on the future of the program if Thomas doesn't address the issue soon after the Minnesota game. Silence will only create further uncertainty which will likely hurt recruiting and could also cost us some asst. coaches.

It's a box Thomas doesn't want to find himself in. Go 7-5, win the bowl game and firing Zook will look unfair at least by human standards but perhaps not by business standards. Any change at the top incurs risk and it isn't automatic that Petrino gets the job. The offense has been the biggest problem going back to the ASU game. Not enough points. How do you promote that?

That's why I think Zook needs to get to 8 wins prior to December or going no worse than 2-2 from here. Thomas can't afford to wait until a bowl game outcome to make a decision. This isn't OSU, ND or Mich or other top program that can attract a good coach and keep good recruits committed after January. That lost month could hinder the program a year or two.

While Mike Thomas may find it hard to fire a bowl eligible coach with a 7-5 record at a historically inept program, a large majority of fans won't find it hard and in fact will expect it given the vibes of the average Illinois fan today. Those vibes will still be there with many even with an 8 win season and still with some, surprisingly it would seem, with a 9 win regular season. But a large majority of Illini nation will be screaming for change with a 6 or 7 win regular season.

In the end the perception of the program under Zook by the average fan and more importantly season ticket holder may be the final arbiter of Zook's future short of an 8 or even perhaps an 9 win regular season. The next three games will likely determine Zook's future at Illinois.

PeoriaIllini wrote on October 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Great post 82, very well thought out and pretty fair to be honest. I'd have to agree, I know people want the flavor of the minute with Petrino, but the offense has not put up points lately like we are capable and that is his responsiblity.

On the other hand the defense has played well, especially considering pre-season expectations that there would be a step back because of all the graudations and early departures. I think some of that goes to Zook for getting enough quality, though by no means world beating, recruits on defense the last few years. I think the majority goes to the defensive side coaches especially Koenig (spelling?). I might feel more comfortable with him as a head coach if we did falter and Zook was fired.

illinizeeman wrote on October 27, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Unless we can get someone much much better, 8-4 means extending Zook. I don't want to be Minnesota and fire someone when we don't have a better replacement.

PortlandIllini wrote on October 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm

The Wall Street Journal is now using the "Zook Index" as a measure of clueless behavior on the gridiron. I have to believe that it is time for a change when your coach's name becomes synomymous with questionable decision making on the field. I have the highest respect for Coach Zook as a person and for running a clean program, but he has reached the limits of his coaching abilities. He needs to be replaced for the Illini to have a chance to succeed a higher level.