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.
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 email@example.com.
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