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."
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.
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.
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."