Asmussen: How did it all go wrong?

Ron Zook walked off the field, toward the home tunnel. His head held high.

Could be for the last time.

The fans near the locker room, the ones wearing Illinois gear, sure hope so. And they weren't going to let him go by without getting in their digs.

"Fire Ron Zook," one yelled repeatedly.

"Get out of here, Ron," shouted another.

"He gone," said a third.

It was 1:56 p.m., and Zook's team had just given No. 15 Wisconsin a game. It led 14-0 in the first half before the Badgers stormed back for a 28-17 win.

Effort? Yes. Productivity? For a half. But no victory. Again.

"I really don't believe this football team has quit," Zook said afterward during his postgame press conference.

The session went about eight minutes. There were no questions about his future at Illinois or job security. Zook made it clear earlier in the week that those topics were off limits.

But it didn't keep his own fans from shouting. And it didn't keep his players from defending him.

Illinois bandit Michael Buchanan had heard enough from the fans.

"Come over here and say that (stuff)," Buchanan yelled.

His teammates held Buchanan back and convinced him to go to the locker room.

"You don't react. You wish you could," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "I'm sure there are people holding my dad back in the stands."

But the question remains out there: Was Saturday the coach's final game at Memorial Stadium?

Saturday's loss was Zook's 50th at Illinois, against 34 wins. He is 18-37 in the Big Ten, 23-22 at home and 4-21 against ranked teams. Illinois is 12-23 in games decided by 10 points or less during Zook's tenure.

STREAK TO SKID

How did it come to this?

On Oct. 9, basketball practice was about to begin, but everybody was talking about football. The team was 6-0 for the first time since 1951.

The Illini were ranked No. 15. The talk wasn't if Zook would get an extension, but when. And for how long.

ABC planned to show a News-Gazette front-page story that detailed how Illinois could play for the BCS title. That got scrapped as Ohio State exposed Illinois' weaknesses (early offense, special teams and decision making).

The program hasn't recovered.

The loss to Ohio State was followed by an upset loss at Purdue and a heartbreaking 10-7 decision at Penn State in Joe Paterno's final game as coach. After a week off, Illinois couldn't get anything going offensively against Michigan in a 17-point loss.

Then came Saturday. Illinois teased the 45,519 fans with a 14-0 lead in the first half.

A special teams blunder, which seems to be a weekly occurrence, set up Wisconsin's first touchdown. An offensive pass interference penalty against Illinois wiped out a touchdown that would have made it 21-7. Still, the Illini led 17-7 at halftime and had the ball to start the second half.

Next, more of the familiar mistakes. Receiver Darius Millines had an apparent first down on a short catch to start the third quarter. But Millines fumbled and Wisconsin recovered. The Badgers scored 12 plays later to make it 17-14.

"If something bad happens you can't worry about it," Zook said.

Wisconsin took the lead for good on the final play of the third quarter, then added a clinching touchdown less than three minutes later.

In the first half, Illinois outgained the Badgers 224 yards to 93. In the second half, Wisconsin dominated 192-77. The Illini helped the Badgers with four turnovers, all in the second half.

"You don't give a team like that that many opportunities," Zook said.

That's five losses in a row for a team that started 6-0. Next week, it could be six.

"You can't go out the season like a punk," Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus said.

"It makes you mad because we should have won that game," Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "We had every opportunity. We dominated the first half."

HISTORY REPEATING

Unless Illinois wins one of its two final games, it will finish under .500 for the fifth time in seven seasons. People in Florida aren't surprised.

Zook's strengths — recruiting and special teams — weren't enough to keep his job in Gainesville. Now, it appears they are going to cost him at Illinois, too.

He went 23-14 in three seasons with the Gators, qualifying for three bowls. Florida lost the two he coached, against Michigan and Iowa in the Outback. He earned a third bowl bid, to the Peach, in 2004, but had already taken the job at Illinois.

He was fired in October 2004 after a loss at Mississippi State. Zook did his best work with the Gators after his dismissal, beating Vanderbilt, South Carolina and No. 10 Florida State and losing by seven against No. 7 Georgia.

His recruiting classes at Florida were highly ranked and helped the Gators, under Urban Meyer, win the 2006 national title. According to Rivals.com, Zook's 2003 Florida class was No. 2 in the country and the 2004 haul was No. 7. The 2003 class included Chris Leak, the MVP of the 2007 BCS Championship game.

The recruiting hauls continued at Illinois for Zook. The 2006 class was ranked No. 30 by Rivals.com and the 2007 group, which included Martez Wilson and Arrelious Benn, topped out at No. 20. In 2008, the class was ranked No. 23.

But the class rankings have started to slide. Precipitously. The 2009 class fell to No. 35. It was outside the Top 50 in 2010 and back to No. 42 in 2011. The current group is outside the Top 50, according to Rivals.com.

In the Scout.com rankings, the current Illini class is No. 62 overall and 11th in the Big Ten. Illinois just landed a four-star linebacker from Miami (Keith Brown) and has interest from other talented players.

But Zook's job status is a problem for most of the recruits. They are reluctant to make a commitment with the uncertainty at Illinois.

THE GOOD, BAD, UGLY

The reason Zook is in his seventh year is because he provided a long-suffering fandom moments of hope. There's been talent on the field (Benn, Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget) and three bowls games, including the 2008 Rose.

Like the previous coach, Illinois' failure to capitalize on a BCS bowl is puzzling. Ron Turner's team wasn't able to follow a Big Ten title in 2001 with another bowl game. He was fired three years later.

Zook's 2008-09 teams went a combined 8-16, losing games to Western Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Fresno State.

Why no consistency? Start with the transition among the coaches. None of the nine assistants who worked for Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl are with the team today.

At Wisconsin, the offensive linemen are doing the same thing as seniors that they did as freshmen. Same for the linebackers, safeties and running backs. There's a steadiness there that makes it easy to win from week to week, season to season.

Former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley knew how to call the right plays for Juice Williams, helping the quarterback set single-game total offense records in three different buildings. When Locksley left to take over at New Mexico, new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz couldn't replicate the success with Williams.

With key parts returning in 2008, Illinois should have been a lock to earn a bowl bid. But there was a hangover for the returning players in 2008, a feeling of satisfaction. Any momentum from the 2007 success was wiped out in '08.

The problems got worse because of the decision to allow the 2008 team to be the focal point of "The Journey" on the BTN. The show chronicled the team from training camp forward. While being in front of the camera was natural for some of the players, others tried to put on a show. The decision hurt the team's chemistry and became a negative for a program still trying to find its way.

Then-Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther considered a change after the 3-9 2009 season. Instead, he allowed Zook to revamp his staff, bringing in Petrino as offensive coordinator and Vic Koenning to run the defense.

In the first year, the win total jumped by four. The offense set school records for scoring. Leshoure had the best season for a running back in Illinois history. Scheelhaase looked like a future star, setting freshman records for passing and total offense.

Reaching the Texas Bowl in 2010, while a bounce back from 2009, didn't add a ton to the program's appeal. Seventy teams earned bowl bids after the 2010 season and the Illini qualified with a 6-6 record. They lost their final regular season game at Fresno State and dropped three of their last four.

NEXT UP

Mike Thomas has one more Illinois game to watch this season. And a bowl.

But if the new athletic director makes a decision to change coaches, it will likely happen sooner rather than later. Waiting until January would cut seriously into the pool of candidates.

The Illini travel to Minnesota for next Saturday's game against the Gophers. Thomas, who has attended all 11 games this season, won't fly with the team to Minneapolis. Instead, after spending time with the Illinois basketball team in Cancun, he will go to Minnesota on Saturday to watch the football game.

Thomas said repeatedly this week that no decision will be made until the conclusion of the season.

Zook has the backing of his players, who point to their own mistakes. The Illini are aware of the outside talk.

"It's frustrating to hear it from a player's standpoint," Scheelhaase said.

"It's not something we want to get into," Mercilus said.

The flaws in the team are obvious. Special teams that rank among the worst in the nation. The lack of a consistent threat at tailback to follow Leshoure, who watched helplessly from the sidelines Saturday. An offensive line that has been hurt by both inconsistency and injuries.

The negativity surrounding the program will be difficult for Thomas to ignore. There are other considerations, like finances.

Zook has two years left on his contract, which pays him $1.75 million annually. According to terms of his contract, if Zook is released, he is entitled to $1.3 million for each of the remaining years. The school can pay him the remaining $1.3 annually instead of having to come up with a lump sum.

The Illinois assistant coaches are working under two-year agreements, which were put in place to add to their security when they joined the Illinois staff.

"It's a really good staff," Petrino said.

KEEP WORKING

With rumors swirling about his job status, Zook plans to continue with business as usual. He'll be in his office today to look over film and check on any of the Illini receiving treatment.

At 2 p.m., he will hold his weekly teleconference, which usually runs about 10 minutes. Then, it's back to work.

The players have the week off from school, meaning more time to practice. And more free time to hear from the outside world.

"If people think they've lost us, they're on the total wrong page, wrong book," Scheelhaase said. "They have no clue. That's what you have to deal with sometime. No doubt about it, we believe in our coaches."

Words the embattled coach likes to hear.

"We've got to stick together," Zook said. "We've got one game to go here. We've got to do everything we can do to play two halves like we are capable of playing."

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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BaytownILLINI wrote on November 20, 2011 at 2:11 am

It is interesting that two of the all-time great coaches played their final games against Illinois.  Not only Joe Paterno but Bear Bryant.  A rather amazing fact on a very depressing day for our beloved Illini.

I would like to see our new AD only allow three years of losing seasons and then a coach gets let go.  I believe in continuity but I would like us to show that losing consistently will not be tolerated.  When Coach Zook, who seems like a great person, was hired it was because what our team needed most was talent thus a top recruiter made great sense.  Now its time to find someone who understands how to use that talent effectively and build a long-lasting program.  If Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Missouri can do it so can Illinois. 

My theory is that Zook will be let go within three days of the Minnesota game which now seems like a very possible loss.  I do think we have the right AD to pick the right football coach.  Zook's biggest asset his recruiting (sure is not special teams or game management) has fallen to where we are mainly seeing two or three star recruits and with that the talent level is dropping year by year.  They have mined some gold from the south no doubt and getting QB Reilly was good recruiting but you no longer are seeing us bringing in talent like Benn,  Wilson, Hawthorne, and Mendenhall.  They have been replaced by 2 and 3 star players.  Some of have been really nice finds and others clearly lack the talent to compete with upper tier conference talent.  I think that both of the coordinators we brought in are very good in spite of our recent five game slide.  If Zook is mainly a figurehead and having little to do with the offense and defense and has clearly lost his ability to sell the program to very high level talented recruits there must be a change. 

I could accept either coordinator getting the head coaching job but I think Thomas will want to bring in his own head coach whom he feels can get the job done.  The difference between Thomas and the AD he replaced is I believe Thomas will hold coaches much more accountable for wins. 

Our football team needs a change in leadership and some very important added excitement. 

Zook stated during this first year with the ILLINI that after seeing Iowa poaching many of the top players out of the state that they had better enjoy it while they can because it won't happen again.  Well Iowa isn't getting that many of the top Illinois players now but other schools are so the results are the SAME as Zook's record.....we are LOSING!

Go ILLINI!  We dearly love you! 

sgraham48 wrote on November 22, 2011 at 10:11 am

..

oskeewowwow wrote on November 20, 2011 at 9:11 am
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Sing it with me, Illini Nation:

"Ron, don't go away mad...Ron, just go away!"

jjohnson wrote on November 20, 2011 at 10:11 am

It probably makes no difference since the clamor, some understandable, some absurd, for Zook to go may leave Mike Thomas with no choice, but consider this:

1) Those who comment, "We have the talent . . ." ignore that this has not historically -- pre-Zook -- been true for Illinois, nor is there any reason to believe that it would necessarily be true after him. IU has been through a series of coaches since firing Corso and then Mallory, but it has not improved the skill level nor the product on the field. Illinois probably now has more team speed than it has ever had -- and it does not come from Illinois high schools.

2) The losses have stunk -- and as unsatisfying as they have been, consider what we were losing for before Zook arrived? Does anyone think Illinois would have been within 11 of Wisconsin 8 years ago? That we would be moaning about a 3 point loss to Penn State? It may well be that Zook cannot get Illinois to the top of the Big Ten, but he has produced some teams that come much closer than we normally do.

I cannot and would not defend some of Zook's stubbornness (the swinging gate, not having either a double safety or a blocker ten yards upfield from the punt receiver), and he does not seem to be the greatest tactician in the world, but does anyone doubt that the Illini came to play yesterday? Or that the defense was not ready every game this year? (2 penalties were the big problem in the first half at Purdue.)

John Mackovic, the best coach Illinois has had since Ray Eliot (whom my father, among others, always wanted fired), left in no small measure because he felt that it was not possible to build a continuously strong program at Illinois, and while I hope he was wrong, from the comfort of the Arizona desert, where Mackovic failed, I want to say something that will prove unpopular: While I love Chanpaign-Urbana and make every football game, I also make games at other Big Ten schools. Champaign-Urbana does not offer what Ann Arbor or Madison or even Iowa City offer in terms of environment. Ask academic deans who have to recruit faculty.

We Illini love our school and its environs, but not every high school senior who can play football and has options sees what we see. Accept it!

toddalan1975 wrote on November 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I agree with you Johnson!    I think most ILLINI fans have too big expectations for our team.   ILLINOIS will only be able to get so many good-great players.  I don't care who the coach is!   Its hard to get kids from the south to come here or other elite talented kids from ohio or out east because  Illinois is a boring, plain, midwest state!    I think zook has brought in some great kids regardless of how many stars they have behind their name.    I like our coaches ability to evaluate players over some web sites star system.   Go back and look at all our players zook has brought in and i bet you our best players are 2 or 3 stars.   I know Mikel was a 3 star,  Jay Leman was 2 or 3,  tez and benn were 5 star kids but they were average at best players on the field and that has carried over into their nfl career, esp with benn thus far.    Great kids, but not worthy of a 5 star ranking.   How about this  years kids.  Mercilus was a 2 star kid for example!    I think too many fans put too much on star rankings!

Bottom line is if we change coaches, i hope he can evaluate talent like zook can and i hope he can recruit talent like zook can or we will be calling for the new coach to be fired too. 

PeterE wrote on November 20, 2011 at 10:11 am

na, na, na, na . . na, na, na, na . .  hey, hey, Goodbye Ron

na, na, na, na . . na, na, na, na . .  hey, hey, Goodbye Ron

na, na, na, na . . na, na, na, na . .  hey, hey, Goodbye Ron

na, na, na, na . . na, na, na, na . .  hey, hey, Goodbye Ron

na, na, na, na . . na, na, na, na . .  bye, bye, Ronald Zook

Salt Life wrote on November 20, 2011 at 10:11 am
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Illinois is now 6-5 on the season - 2-5 in the Big Ten (9th). Illnois can not get away with only playing a half (or quarter) against decent teams and get away with it. Or have one of the worst special teams in the nation. Zook will be fired after the Minnesota game. If it was up to me he would have been fired after the Wisconsin game but I know Thomas promised not until after the season (regular season no doubt) so it will have to be after the game at Minnesota.

patrick wrote on November 20, 2011 at 11:11 am

Some really interesting comments today...not just the usual "bash Zook" stuff. As an alum for 40+ years, I continue to love the Illini. Yet, as the years have passed, I've grown more quizzical as to why the UofI seems utterly unable to build a consistent program. I agree with another poster who states that Illinois will likely never be a powerhouse. But, is it so difficult to build a program that's consistently competitive? I don't get crushed by losses to teams which are clearly better from a talent standpoint. However, the mental mistakes are just killers. Additionally, it appears to me that, in the second half of this season, the Illini have been unmotivated. The OSU game stands out. The Illini, appearing on national TV before a big crowd, looked flat. How does that happen? After the game(s), the players and coaches all say the "right" things, but on the field, something is missing, and it's not necessarily talent.

The only solution I can see is to hire some young, super-motivated, smart assistant coach who wants to build a program and make a name for himself. Forget about getting "name" coach. Unfortunately, the UofI has become a graveyard for coaches.

bluehavana wrote on November 20, 2011 at 11:11 am

Signs of reality were shown during the Western Michigan game.  A home game entirely too close where the Illini were favored by 13 points.

Coach Zook should be measured by things he can control, same as his staff would do with any player.  An easy schedule led to 6-0, a tougher stretch has led to 6-5.  However, we see repeated instances where clock management is questionable.  Experimenting with a freshman quarterback takes place during the early season blowouts, not against tough Big Ten competition.  Punt returners, if not confident, should have a second player back with them.

A seemingly small, yet telling action took place at the end of the game yesterday.  With the Badgers closing on moving into "victory" formation, Coach Zook was visibly clapping at his players saying "Let's Go".  At the same time, our defense continued to substitute players as 1st down became 2nd became 3rd.  This at a time when the outcome was actually over, not seemingly over.

You wonder if the coaching staff, led by Coach Zook, is so caught up in petty detail they can't see the forest for the trees. 

 

Illini_Fan_78 wrote on November 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Zook will be fired no question-If for no other reason to sell tickets.  The bigger question is does Illinois want to build a winning program or is money the most important factor for the U of I?  They are not the same!  I graduated from the U of I in 2006 but took a job up in Michigan for a few years.  Losing in Michigan is NOT acceptable and from an outside eye looking at it WAS acceptable under Ron Guenther. How else can you explain winning 6 straight games against no one (accept Arizona State and they have seen better days as well) and then to collapse. I believe Ron Guenther's style was to accept loosing and make money for the U of I and the athletic department .The same thing with Bruce Webber- after Bill Self left Mr. Guenther did not want to pay for a top level coach and risk losing him to a top level program in a few years. The question is will pulling the wool over the fans eye’s continue under Mike Thomas? I sure hope not but time will tell.

OKOMIS wrote on November 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm

for all you star counters...i went on scouts.com and looked at florida's recuiting class since 2002,


as far as it would let me go back... without taking an exact count it looked like 4 and 5 stars every


year..as a UI grad who moved to tampa 30 years ago, i'm wondering does florida's new coach


suck that bad?? here's a quote after last weeks loss to SC.


"Eight games into his SEC career, and Muschamp already has five losses.


Galen Hall didn't lose five until his 14th league game.


It took Ron Zook 17 SEC games. Urban Meyer was in his 19th,


and Spurrier played 38 SEC games before losing five."  i honestly don't know what it means,


but looking at the last 3 or 4 recuiting classes he got/inherited, they are all 4 and 5 star..i guess


as good of a guy someone is, or as good of a recruiter, maybe some people just can't get


the players to make plays.


 

Buffetrph@aol.com wrote on November 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I too grew up an Illini fan and am an alumni.  I love the orange and blue. I have been a season ticket holder for football for many years. I like all others are dazed and confused about why we cannot CONSISTENTLY have a program that battles for in the upper echelons of the Big Ten like Wisconsin.  At the same time, we all want a program that is clean and not facing the controversies that are occurring at PSU.  Coach Zook has raise the bar but a change needs to be made.  

We love the University of Illiniois

DaisyJ wrote on November 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm

zOOK WILL be back,, repeat, be back...He has one more year even though he is signed for


two more and that is the reason he will be back. Both coaches also are signed. The money is not there to remove him. It would cost too much. We are not desparete, keeping him no matter how sickening is still palatable. It will happen. However , a very short leash is already on for next year. Until they realize to move Scheel to another position, either DB or WR,,we will not win any more than we have. O'toole needs to be starter next year, we go under center and act like Wisconsin, . In that I mean, we use the QB for what he should be, a passer first along with a brain to stay in pocket. O'toole has that. When we do that, we then allow our running backs to be running backs, one a blocker for the other. If you notice, this is what Wisconsin does.


Not that hard unless you try to outhink yourself which is what Zook is good at.

dhendricks71 wrote on November 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm

                                    I agree with Jjohnson.  It looks like Illinois has more speed than they ever had.  Obviously since thats what all college football recruiting emphasizes it show the illini staff have done a great job recruiting in spite of the so called rankings. In addition to those who don't remember the last few years of the turner era, the last two years of Illini football could be considered the golden years.  You can also view it from this angle, 3 of the past 5 years they have had a winning record including 3 bowls(probably) in 5 years.  Thats as good as any Illini coach in recent memory.  Also the losses over the last few years, although disappointing, have been remarkably close.  By any measure they have been very competitive in nearly every game if not all of them.  What people fail to realize is that every program fights tooth and nail to improve its football program including investing millions in facilities and coaching staff to accomplish this. To even be where Zook is at is an accomplishment that most of us could never even begin to approach.  How many of us are making 1.7 million? exactly.  How many times do you see a program get rid of a coach who is isn't improving the program fast enough.  Only to hire a new coach, who not only doesn't do any better but worse.  Finally I think discussion of this topic in the middle of a winning season has no positive effect on the team.  I think if you are a true fan you wouldn't want to burden this team with anything more than they already have by bringing up a coaching change in the press conferences.

tonyjb37 wrote on November 21, 2011 at 9:11 am
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Good Bye Zookie Monster! Don't let the door hit your fanny on the way out. If the players are sticking up for a loser like zookster that just goes to show the world what kind of mentallity this guy brought to our once beloved football program. he brought a losing attitude, I mean the players are just like this guy, I think they enjoy losing just as much as he does because why else would you stick up for this guy unless you are a loser to and dont mind the way things are going. Any players who really want to win on any kind of consistant basis would protest this losing mentallity and refuse to play for this guy until he is gone. I have four rough and tough boys and I will not allow them to play for a so called nice guy no matter where he is coaching especially if it is my own beloved school. Nice guys, when it comes to winning on the football field dont win you games. When it comes to the game of football nice is weakness and it has no place in the game of football. If you want to be nice, there is always barber college. The top three coaches in the country not just my opinion but also fact as their records speak for themselves is in this order 1) Urban Meyer 2) Chris Petersen (Boise State) 3) Garry Patterson (TCU) if we get anyone of these three guys then we win a national championship within 5 years and I gauran damn tee it. Now pay attention to the two that dont play in a BCS conference I bet they would love to coach in the Big Ten which is a BCS conference then they would be gauranteed to have a chance to go coach in the national championship game as well as we would be given a chance for my beloved ILLINI to play for the national championship. It is a match made in Heaven, what else could you ask for?