Tate: Is it time to sack Zook?

Heat is coming, but I see no reason to rush decision

My media contacts and closest associates are hammering me to join in calling for an end to the Ron Zook era at Illinois. Saturday's nonperformance against Michigan did them in.

They want me to get out front. My question: What's the hurry? Shouldn't we join new athletic director Mike Thomas in waiting until all the information is in from the final two games? Let the dust settle, consider all options, analyze the finances, check who might be available, and conclude what's best for the future.

All assumptions are, of course, based on the likelihood of losing a fifth straight against Wisconsin. Even Zook, seemingly at a loss to explain Saturday's collapse, admits "nobody gives us a chance." But for some reason, Illinois is only a two-TD underdog, and that's a lot closer than where the world champion Cardinals stood in September. Strange things happen in sports. Let's allow it to play out.

It's no secret that Zook never impressed me as the right person to rebuild the program. I'm not his kind of scribe, and he's not my kind of coach. I fall in with the fan who stated: "He is acceptable to me on the premise that I was born to suffer."

To be fair, Zook is a worker with the right motives, and he had his good moments. He rode new coordinators to a 7-6 season in 2010, and if the Illini split the last two, a 7-5 regular season record will be second best in a decade.

But recruiting has become a major concern. In his early years there were positive signs. Not lately. The D.C. pipeline is dead, and recruiting has tailed off, particularly in the home state where nearly all the 2012 blue-chippers have elected to go elsewhere.

No, I don't think the recent incidents on campus should affect the decision. College students everywhere party until the early-morning hours, and football players are more likely than most to get in trouble. And let's remember that Illinois is down in the pecking order and doesn't always attract the super-athlete who is also in good academic standing. Ohio State and Michigan get most of those. We are forever fooling ourselves about the quality of UI football talent.

On that subject, it wasn't Trulon Henry's fault, and I believe in second chances, but who else had a 27-year-old squad member with a prison record getting shot? This won't read well in Winnetka.

My concerns are that Zook lacks the inspirational powers or scheme adjustments to save a sinking ship. He has never been sufficiently involved with the offense to energize it. And his work with special teams has Illinois abominably poor in returns and coverage. Blocked kicks and fumbled punts have become routine. When he at long last inserted Terry Hawthorne on Saturday, his 6-yard punt return was the second longest in 10 games.

We've seen the problems, and we've seen the mistakes. But rushing to judgment doesn't accomplish anything. Thomas was brought in precisely to deal with this, and ever-hopeful Illini Nation will look to him for the right decision.

Everybody in the pool

Zook could have had the Ole Miss coaching job late in 2004 when the UI's Ron Guenther beat the Rebels to the punch.

Now, ironically, Mississippi is back in the search along with Penn State, Arizona, Tulane, New Mexico and probably Ohio State. The number will grow.

It is interesting to hear Ole Miss' likely preferences since the program, like the UI, is perennially in the bottom half of its conference.

Let's start with Urban Meyer. If health allows, he's going to be a hot item for Penn State or Ohio State. He's out of reach for Mississippi (Illinois).

The list starts with Mike Leach, Texas Tech's former offensive guru who is more likely than anyone to quickly uplift a team ... if his personal peccadilloes don't get in the way. And Rich Rodriguez, who had excellent credentials until he went to Michigan, wants back in the business.

Those are special cases. Then come such head coaches — remember, this is a Southern search — as South Florida's Skip Holtz, Cincinnati's Butch Jones, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, Southern Mississippi's Larry Fedora, SMU's June Jones, Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze and Baylor's Art Briles. These are coaches who might be willing to move for the prestige of the SEC.

Among offensive coordinators mentioned are Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Clemson's Chad Morris, Oklahoma's Josh Heupel, Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, TCU's Justin Fuente and Texas Tech's Neal Brown.

These are some of the hot names. But is there one with the special qualities to turn Ole Miss or a program on that level?

Crowd control

There weren't many octogenarians among the 62,000-plus Sunday at Soldier Field. Some women, but not many. A few kids. This is a raucous, blue-collar, beer-guzzling crowd of hardy fanatics in jeans, sturdy men wearing Butkus or Urlacher jerseys, and knowledgeable in the words to "Bear Down, Chicago Bears."

They cheer louder, they complain louder, they sing louder.

They come to intimidate and make a difference, and when the Lions fumbled twice early they thought they had something to do with it. The game disintegrated quickly with three incredible Devin Hester punt returns (one for a TD) and two Chicago pick sixes just after halftime. But the lasting memory on this wind-swept day was the fervor of the crowd, as compared to the 60,000 family types in attendance the day before at Memorial Stadium.

Soldier Field came alive with a ferocity that simply doesn't exist here. As we saw back when the Bears played at Memorial Stadium, these antagonistic males arrive with different motives. They are concerned with the point spread and their fantasy favorites. They criticize everything. They want another beer.

Generally speaking, they have more invested. Whereas Illini parking is the best anywhere, it's tough getting to Soldier Field, particularly from the large tailgating areas. Buses haul folks in. And the cost: Wow! The place is sold out and there were no gaps Sunday, no students arriving late and leaving early. My single 20-yard line seat in Row 7 of the second deck cost more than $300 and required a $9,000 season ticket seat license by the owner. That's right. Four seats required $36,000 (a single, lifetime payment) in that spot before buying a ticket.

The NFL is a different world. UI fans don't appreciate the convenience of attending a game here. But, you're right, any outlay of money and time is too much when Michigan is allowed to dominate so thoroughly.

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

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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Batmantis wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am

Spot on as usual - have to wait until all the facts are in to make judgments.  If the Illini finish 7-5 do you really fire a coaching crew that has gone to consecutive bowl games for the first time since the John Mackovich era? When there is overall progress, that usually gets rewarded, not punished.

Dan Bloeme wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am
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Is it time to sack Zook? Well considering it is long overdue and Zook should have been replaced in 2009, you could say it is definitely time (as in yesterday). Zook's record at Illinois is 34-49 and an even worse 18-36 in Big Ten. I'm not surprised there is talk about firing Zook but I am astonished that he is still here. A 7-6 record (last year) was a very mediocre showing, even considering long sufferring fans misery. This year with an easier schedule with many home games (Eight home games) Illinois under Zook has managed to fall apart still again and may close out the regular season on possibly a 5 or six game losing streak. Writing is on the wall and says Zook firing imminent and long, long overdue for fans deserving better.

kfj wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am

I agree!!! As one who buys tickets to the game, it would be foolish to continue to say fire the coach. A 7 and 5 record is respectable for Illinois. two bowls in a row. When did that happen? Go Illini!!

PortlandIllini wrote on November 15, 2011 at 10:11 am

I have met Coach Zook and I think that he is an honest, compassionate, and articulate spokesman for the U  of I.  But in college sports, perception is reality.  Coach Zook is perceived as not being able to motivate his team to excel  on game day and he makes questionable decisions on the field.  When your coach's name becomes synonymus with being in a fog ( he pulled a Zooker) , it is time for a change.    

I agree with Loren that the AD should not make any decisions until after the end of the regular season.   But the arrows are pointing down for the future of the Illini football team next year.    A smart AD doesn't wait for a 2-9 season to justify a coaching change. He just has to convince major donors to pony up the money for a buy-out.

oskeewowwow wrote on November 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm
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Articulate?? I would never associate that word with the Zooker.

bluehavana wrote on November 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

This weekend the Illini are playing the school that is the living breathing example why a head coach makes a difference.  Before Wisconsin hired Barry Alvarez, it was another school similar to Illinois.  Win the easy ones, and hope to snag enough Big Ten wins to get to 6 or 7 total and make a bowl.  Not anymore. 

It struck me Saturday just how much the U of I puts on such a visual and decibel pounding audio show to entertain the football fans.  Video and audio clips from the likes of Dick Butkus, and star athletes from other sports walk onto the field during several breaks.  Sadly, this is the only show on Saturdays.  

We see option run offenses with no real development in the passing game.  Even during our Rose Bowl run, the quarterbacks appear incapable of reading and throwing on a defense.

 

Amish Karnac wrote on November 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

It's time for Zook to go.  It's like holding a downward stock for too long.  Do you wait for that stock to go to zero, and have nothing, or do you bite bullet now, take your losses, and reinvest in something you feel will give you better results going forward.


Let's do some simple math - let's just say that the buyout of Zook's contract is $1,500,000 for two years (I think I'm in the ballpark) for a total of $3,000,000.  If tickets are an average of $50 each in Memorial Stadium, and there are seven (could be six, could be eight) home games in a season.  $3,000,000 divided by $50 divided by seven is 8,571 tickets per game.  For an eight game home schedule, the break-even number becomes 7,500 tickets per game.  I can easily imagine the DIA being able to increase attendance in the next two years by those respective numbers by hiring a coach in which the fandom believe provides us a better shot at a consistent upper echelon finish in the Big Ten.  Conversely, I could see attendance dropping by those numbers if Zook stays, and costing the University that much more dinero. 


I was one of those who was a season ticket holder for probably the last twenty years.  I finally "cut the cord" and did not renew for the 2011 season.  It was such a liberating feeling!  I did attend five of the eight home games.  I paid for only two of those games - one at $20 per ticket on the street, and the other from the University at regular price.  The other three games I was able to attend because people offered me free tickets because of their own, or their family members, lack of interest in attending.


I have to admit, with some guilt, that sometimes deep in my heart I hope that these current Illini fail, because that would mean we're closer to the end of the Zook era.  I know that sounds crass-but deep down, there's part of me that feels that way.  Think about it this way - won't it be better for the future of the football program if we lose these last two games, particularly the Minnesota game - than to limp along at 7-5 and in turn, retain coach Zook for another season?


 

illinizeeman wrote on November 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

I feel Zook has the following qualities:

 - Knows how to analyze defensive prospects well

 - Personable

 - Salesman

 - Excels as underdog

 

Weaknesses:

 - Does not know how to coach the aspects of football that are more cerebral (safeties, special teams, time management, time-out management)

 - Public speaking and PR

 - Motivation, getting players in the right state of mind

 - Relies too much on player leadership without developing team leaders

It will be interesting to watch the game this weekend to see if players rally around him and give WI a game.

walker wrote on November 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

Two coaching legends have been fortunate enough to have played us in


what became their final game. (Bear Bryant & Joe Pa)  Maybe there were others


as well?  This program is making history folks !


 


 

WhoSays wrote on November 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Zook might or might not be a nice guy and same goes for Weber, but neither guy is a good public image for this school.


Both have been given a very fair shake at the U of I and Zook has to be the first to go.


One could aurgue Zook has done more to build up his program than Weber, but the lack of common sense used in games is his ticket out of this town.


We have had two of the most nonquarterback QB's over his tenure and that is tip of iceburge on players out of position.


Zooks special teams is the only thing worse on this campus than Webers out of bounds plays.


Don't wait any long dust this guy today. Who cares what happens next two weeks or if we go to a bowl.


Zook & Weber are A #1 reasons I no longer have or will have season tickets at the U of I.


 

PeterE wrote on November 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

For all intent and purposes, Zook is already out the door. Just waiting on the official word after the Board of Trustees has their meeting and Mike Thomas can release the news. Mr & Mrs Zook most likely have already contacted a realtor and getting long distance moving truck quotes for the trip back down to their home in Florida which they keep. Ron knows he's out.

illiniart wrote on November 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

It would appear that the general consensus among Illini fans is that Zook should be fired.  That's common knowldege.  So what is the value of Loren once again listing all the reasons he should be fired, while attributing to  anonymous "media writers and closest associates" that they want Zook gone, and then suggesting that we shouldn't do it yet?   Talk about convoluted logic for a column!!!


It's clear that Loren is attempting to keep the issue in front of everyone.  I'm not sure how that helps the team, helps with ticket sales, or helps with recruiting.  Does he not have anything else to write about?  With friends like Loren, the University of Illinois sure does not need any enemies.

Moonpie wrote on November 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

illiniart -- Saint Tate has been making it up for decades. What else can we expect from someone who actually writes "on the come" in a column," Is it 1956? In Saint Tate World, indeed it is.

Moonpie wrote on November 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

illiniart -- Saint Tate has been making it up for decades. What else can we expect from someone who actually writes "on the come" in a column," Is it 1956? In Saint Tate World, indeed it is.

Dan Bloeme wrote on November 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm
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Ron Zook walks out on regularly scheduled press conference after question pertaining to his future and what he tells team about how to handle that situation if they were asked about him. Fair question it would seem but Zook glares and storms out.

Zook wants the adulation and sympathy that JoePa received from his "loyal" fans except Zook doesn't have hardly any fans, much less among the media.

IlliniNationsCapital wrote on November 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Firing Zook in the middle of the season is insane. Of course the offense and special teams have been lousy for four weeks. But on the off-chance we beat Minnesota in a couple Saturdays, we will finish 7-5 and go to a mediocre bowl where, for the second straight year, we'll have a chance to win again.

Can we seriously fire Zook if he wins a second-straight bowl game? That would be the first time in 120 years of Illinois football we've won two straight bowl games. This ain't LSU, people!

 

toddalan1975 wrote on November 16, 2011 at 8:11 am

wow some of you people are crazy!   we are going to a second bowl game in a row and you want the coach out?   yeah, it sucks to lose these games in a row, but its sports.    I like coach zook and think we have a good coaching staff.   Who are we going to get to come here with all these other schools needing coaches?     Lets let him finish the season and go from there.   Now if he loses out and we go 6-7, then make a change, but if we win 1 or 2 more, you should keep him.   This is Illinois,  not ohio st, usc, texas, etc.    We will NEVER get the talent here that those schools get!

DaisyJ wrote on November 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

What part of 34 and 49 wins and loses do you not understand. What part of the weak schedule


this year for 6 wins do you not understand. What part of there are no top recruits red shirted nor are there any on the way. What part of we can do this with just about any coach. What part of try something different with the 3 to 4 million paid to our coaching staff. What part do you


not understand. Mediocre is Mediocre.

PeterE wrote on November 16, 2011 at 11:11 am

Yes it's time to Sack Zook - Give Zook the Hook - Fire Ron Zook - Dump a Zook

oskeewowwow wrote on November 17, 2011 at 9:11 am
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So you're ok with mediocrity? And you think we can NEVER compete for top talent or good coaches? Illinois football used to be an elite program and there is no reason it can't return to greatness. Some of us refuse to settle for anything less.The rest of you are content with a .500 season and some third-tier bowl bid. Alexander Pope must have had fans like you in mind when he said, "Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed."

illini82 wrote on November 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I can't believe there are some that will settle for mediocrity. It's why we have had Zook beyond 2009, Turner in 04 and Tepper in his last year. Other schools would have made the change but we "hoped" and let things fester. In the meantime recruiting dropped, attendance, dropped and national image dropped.


An 0-6 or 1-5 finish is an epic implosion given a 6-0 start a record which was aided by a friendly schedule. The momentum did nothing as we had hoped.


I know I won't be buying season tix anymore unless a coaching change is made. Let's not let things get to where they were in the last years of Tepper and Turner.


 

IlliniNationsCapital wrote on November 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Sarcasm alert: Let's just fire the coach every year that we don't win the Big Ten title. That will send a message to everyone that UI football will not stand for medicrity.

We're going to a bowl game, for crying out loud. Its not as if we're 0-11. There is no comparison between this season and final seasons of Tepper and Turner. It should make no difference whether the six or seven wins were early or late in the season.

 

oskeewowwow wrote on November 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm
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IlliniNationsCaptial, your arguments are so misguided.

First, no one is saying fire the coach every year if we don't win a B1G title. Zook has been here 7 years and is 34-49. 'Nuff said.

Second, bowl-eligible does not guarantee an invite. By my count, there will be 9 bowl invitations available for the B1G and 10 bowl-eligible teams. What bowl would invite a team in total meltdown and whose fans don't travel well?

Third, it absolutely does matter whether the wins come early or late in the season. Early wins at home against inferior competition mean very little. The 4 conference losses in row (5 after Saturday) are far more telling and indicate the program is headed in the wrong direction.

Moonpie wrote on November 17, 2011 at 10:11 am

I agree with oskeewowwow -- all this bowl speculation by the Cheerleader Sportswriters is as silly as when they ask players their favorite colors and pass that off as a story. They might have time for more actual reporting if they weren't in such a hurry to wheelbarrow their egos down to the Esquire. What bowl really wants this imploded team?

bowspray wrote on November 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm

After watching the Wisconsin game,the decision should be much easier. Zook has sacrificed scores of coaches to save his own bacon. The reality is Illinois doesn't have a Head Coach who has the depth,savvy and leadership skills to direct and inspire a group of young men. It's time for Zook to go!