Tate: New AD won't wait on finish

Tate: New AD won't wait on finish

The 6-5 Illini still can win eight football games, a number attained just three times in the past 20 years ... and these athletes could be the only Illini to participate in two bowl victories.

But unlike Saturday's Wisconsin game, which offered coach Ron Zook a lost opportunity to strengthen his uncertain status, the regular season finale at Minnesota has little bearing on the big picture. Whatever comes to pass — whether Zook is retained, extended or replaced — is already firm in the minds of Mike Thomas and those who will make the decision. A win won't change it, nor will a loss.

Thomas gave the first indication of his determination to rework the DIA's leadership when he hired Jason Lener from Miami (Ohio) and gave him the title of executive senior associate director. In other words, his No. 2 man ... the irony being that Lener's boss, Brad Bates, interviewed for the UI job that Thomas got.

Lener's background is impressive, having served as ticket manager and later director of finance at Pitt, and moving to Oxford, Ohio, in 2006 where he handled football and basketball, and served as liaison for finances and the general counsel's office, among other duties.

The next move by Thomas will be the most important of his first year. Up to now, he has been immensely popular. But he now faces the biggest UI controversy since Chief Illiniwek. The majority of UI fans were Chief supporters and were denied in a decision that the administration couldn't avoid. Now Illini fans are packed heavy on the side of a football coaching change and waiting breathlessly to see what happens. Most think it is a done deal. If it isn't, if Zook returns, it'll take a magician to sell tickets for next year's home schedule of Western Illinois, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. That said, it isn't clear that anyone else could, either.

Big D

Most overlooked aspect of Saturday's 28-17 loss to Wisconsin was the strong performance of Vic Koenning's defense despite the absence of key starters at linebacker (Trulon Henry) and the secondary (Steve Hull and Supo Sanni).

Even as the mistake-prone Illini kept turning over the ball in unfavorable locations, the defensive unit made the Badgers work for every yard. Bret Bielema's high-scoring Badgers came in averaging 46.5 points, 249 aerial yards and 499 total yards, and they managed just 28, 90 and 285, respectively. Against a patchwork secondary, Russell Wilson came up 159 yards short of his aerial average.

Sanni was in for a few plays before coming out. Hull, who had been the team's fourth-leading tackler, didn't play at all. But the defense, underrated all season, responded as well as could be expected. Wisconsin's four TDs came on short marches.

"Pat Nixon-Youman did a good job at free safety," Koenning said, "and Tavon Wilson moved to cat-safety and got us in the right calls. Terry Hawthorne played like a linebacker who can cover (15 tackles). Some of it wasn't good enough because we had the lead and couldn't hold it. Some things we couldn't control, like when Jonathan Brown got blocked (illegally) in coverage on Wisconsin's TD pass. Our fits were 95 percent good, but that running back (Montee Ball, 30 TDs) ran through some tackles."

If you listen, you'll hear Illini Nation clamoring for a change at the top but wondering whether Koenning might be retained in case of a shuffle. The UI defense is ranked No. 9 nationally in yards allowed (288), No. 7 in pass defense (165.8) and No. 6 in sacks and tackles for loss, and much of it appears to be systemic.

Early returns

Assistant coaches and players inform that Zook has maintained a positive attitude throughout the five-game losing streak, though he's anything but happy about special teams.

"I don't remember a year this tough," Zook said. Freshman Justin DuVernois dropped snaps that affected outcomes against Purdue and Wisconsin. DuVernois stands 11th in Big Ten punting (38.3 average) and that doesn't take into account his costly fumbles.

"Justin has been getting some bad emails," Zook said. "I don't like it, but that's part of it. He'll learn. We have to stay positive."

"Believing" remains a team theme.

"Negativity brings more negativity," defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "It's been stressful, but we have to keep believing."

As noted earlier, the defense has sustained a good level. And in what seems like an overnight development, Mercilus is hitting NFL radars with his nation-leading (13.5) sacks.

"It's nice to have that option. We'll discuss that later," Mercilus said. "I didn't think I'd have a chance to break Simeon Rice's sack record (16 in 1994).

The NFL's interest in Mercilus — whatever that might be — raises a question whether Illinois might take another hit like last year when Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson left early.

"If you asked those three today, I think they'd tell you that they would have been better off to stay in school," Koenning said. "We'd be pretty good with those three. They're difference-makers."

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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JimOATSfan wrote on November 23, 2011 at 12:11 am

Look, we're Illini fans win or lose. These are our Illini players win or lose. These are our football coaches win or lose. 

To the players: go out and continue to kick-butt and take names.  Offense, just relax and make it fun again. Visualize the completed third down plays and go make them.  Play error free ball: make it a fun challenge.

To the coaches: not every Illini fan needs you to move on.   The entire group are good men doing a good job. Could some one else run the special teams better? It sure looks like it.  Could someone else make game decisions better?  Sure looks like it.

But fortunately, the coaches don't miss tackles, drop passes, throw interceptions, drop snaps or make the goofiest referreing calls game after game.  Seems like we need a season highlight film of the wacked-out calls that impacted each game (for maybe the last decade or so too). 

So get your groove on Illini, win two more and celebrate an 8 win season. Only the third time in 20 years at Illinois. 

Hmmm, back-to-back bowl games, eight wins, soooo close in most games lost ...it all sounds just like what the Illini fans were desperate for 2-3 years ago.

Have the coaches delivered?  Could be they have and perhaps the fans have just raised their win-them-all demands, AKA 'scope-creep'.

Go Illini !   and thanks for making Illini football relevant again these last 2 years.

blmillini wrote on November 23, 2011 at 2:11 am

Thank God for a weak early schedule.  It sure would be nice to win some Big 10 games.  We should finish at least in the middle of the pack in the Big 10 every year.  Going to two bowls and/or having a winning record is not the same as it was 20 years ago... apples and oranges.  Those things are overrated.

dhendricks71 wrote on November 23, 2011 at 2:11 am

You touched a lot of my points.  People just have short memories and don't realize how bad Illinois football can get. I think just two years after Turners sugar bowl team they went 1-11 and the scores were just ridiclously bad.  Now they are in every game just look at the close losses and relatively close losses the last two years. There is no doubt that the program under Zook is more competitive.  However I think the dwindling crowds are an indication that leaves the AD with little choice.  It kind of sucks because they have a good nucleus of players on both sides of the ball returning.  I think without a change in coaching staff we are looking at 2 more bowl seasons consecutively.  Are we willing to risk that on a new coach?

muckfichigan wrote on November 23, 2011 at 7:11 am

Since Wisconsin seems to be a valid comparison, let's review their resurrection under Barry Alvarez. 16 years, 11 bowl games, 3 BCS bowls all of which were the Rose Bowl. Finished a shade above .500 in the Big Ten at 65-60-3, had 7 losing seasons in conference and 2 seasons at .500. Went to a bowl game with a 2-6 conference record one year and won the Alamo Bowl.

Barry is the highest paid AD in the Big Ten by far at 2.5 million and still holds weekly meetings with Bielema so he doesn't spoil the recipe. Bielema has pushed the bar higher in Madison to date as a result, but my guess is that the wheels would have come off this year if not for snatching the mercenary Russell Wilson.

So basically we need a coach that can take us to one major bowl game every 5 years, qualify for the leftovers at least every other year, and sport a .500 record in conference play. Of course, if you have an AD with tight purse strings that schedules like he owns property in Ann Arbor, you will run the program the opposite direction. This is the first year that Zook and the Illini have reaped any benefit from scheduling, and all

we hear is moaning despite a 6-0 start. If you want to have a successful program, review the Wisconsin formula under BA carefully. 4-4 on average in conference play, and win 3 out of 4 NC games. Because the only part of the schedule you control is the NC and it counts for 33% of the season, you cannot afford to go out and play more than one toss up game per year.

Get over the schedule already!


kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

If you call yourself an Illinois fan, and you don't go to games because you don't like the coach, YOU SUCK as a fan.

Zook is obviously not the best coach around, but the program is in WAY  better shape than it was before he came here. He runs a clean program, has significantly upgraded the coaching staff and has the team playing mostly competitive games, if not winning as much as we would like. I think recruiting would be fine, too, if people weren't always publicly putting the coaches on "the hotseat".

I am disgusted by all those who call for anyone to be fired without sound moral or legal reasons. In the case of a coach, I think several consecutive seasons of losing records and a grossly uncompetitive team might warrant the hiring/firing authority looking at other options, but WE DON"T HAVE THAT.  I believe most of those calling for Coach Zook's head would be happy to have Jerry Sandusky as head coach if they thought he would win here. Admit it, you would...

I hate the idea of starting over again, and I doubt that Illinois can attract a head coach who will have better success than we might see with the current staff. It KILLS me when the Illini lose, but I will be surprised if a new coaching staff has any more success in improving the way I feel after an Illinois game.

Illinois fans need to support the team, but they don't. Instead, their attitude is " I don't like Zook, so I'm not going to the games."

Mr. Thomas, keep the coaches!






Moonpie wrote on November 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm

We have to go to games because you say so? How arrogant and narrow-minded. Really?  No one is allowed to think for themselves? I make a point of going somewhere here in Michigan to cacth games and I don't care for Zook. I go even though for weeks I have known they will pooch each game and look silly. So, if I stop watching I'm not a real fan? A traitor? I watch the games IN SPITE of the coach. I watch in spite of the arrogance of Tate and his tribe and fans that claim to be the only true fans. I saw Butkus play at Memorial Stadium. I went to basketball games at Huff Gym. I saw Dave Downey play. How about you, the one and only real fan?

kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm


You are one bizarre dude, try to get a grip. I'm not telling anyone WHAT to think, just suggesting that you DO think. I don't consider Ron Zook  a great coach, and I'm not telling you to think so either. I get upset with his game management, and I scream at the games and at the TV, but I don't want to throw him out and start over with somebody else. Yes, it's hard being an Illinois fan, but what makes you think a different coach, the kind of coach we can attract to Illinois, is really going to change that? Do you divorce your wife because she doesn't cook your favorite meal the way you like it. 

I have only been going to Ilinois games since 1972, so I guess you're even older, and apparently crankier than I am. My attitude towards coaching changes is largely a result of having watched the long parade of coaches, from Blackman to Moeller to White to Mackovic to Tepper to Turner and Zook, most of whom were supposed to be an improvement over the previous coach, and guess what? Oh, you don't even HAVE to guess, because you've seen even MORE coaching changes that FAILED to bring the success we all want. Have you ever wondered if Gary Moeller would eventually have had success at Illinois? He did fine at Michigan, didn't he? Might we learn anything from that?

What's your problem with Tate? Too young? Just kidding,no need to answer that.


Moonpie wrote on November 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

My friend, Tate's arrogance and sloppy writing have always irritated me. And the way he is so condescending to fans. Enough on The Legend in His Own Mind.

As a kid, I recall Pete Elliott. That's how far back I go. I have seen, as you, the endless parade of mostly failed coaches. I keep watching games all these years because I DO think -- I think well past the Zooks and Teppers -- and Tates. And as I said, I watch in spite of Zook. But I don't believe in blind allegiance in sports anymore than I do in politics.

Illinois should do better and fans ought to expect more. This new AD Thomas seems like he might have what it takes. I hope so.

And fans ought to feel free to swat Gazoo Cheerleading back across the net.

Dan Bloeme wrote on November 23, 2011 at 8:11 am

Will Thomas tell Ron before the game but announce Zook's firing right after the game or wait until Sunday or Monday? Right now in the IlliniHQ poll it's showing 70% believe Zook has been told he'll be fired. Mike Thomas won't have to be concerned about much backlash from the few Pro-Zook fans left. It's not just your poll and internet message boards either, the large declining numbers of attendance at Memorial Stadium shows fans have voted there too.

Personally I am frustrated and worn out with all these years of mediocrity and have been ready for a new head coach for years so news can't come soon enough. It will be nice to feel excitement again if Thomas delivers a great replacement. It will feel like a new era has begun. I believe Thomas will deliver the goods and Pres Hogan is supporting him 100%.

Batmantis wrote on November 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

Nice to see some rational posts here for a change. Zook certainly isn't the perfect coach, but OVERALL we are seeing continued improvement in the program and I do not think it wise to break that and start all over. As Loren pointed out in the article, even if Zook is gone, exactly who can be brought in to fill the stands next year? If anyone thinks Mike Leach, Urban Meyer, or Kevin Sumlin is coming here, well...dream on.  The job of an AD is to make the tough choices, not to bend to popular opinion just to be liked.  In this case the tough yet correct decision may be to keep the coaching staff and stay the course.

PeterE wrote on November 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

You really are delusional if you think Mike Thomas will settle for the mediocrity which you embrace. You really don't know Mike Thomas. Even President Hogan brought in Thomas to get Illinois competitive again. You're right in one thing, Mike Thomas doesn't do anything to be liked and won't be swayed by the few adulating pro-Zookers left in Illini Nation who are in self-denial and will not only settle for mediocrity but worse sugar coat the failure that is Zook's record. Thomas will do the job he was hired for and that is to make Illinois relevant again and able to be genuinely competitive with anyone in the Big Ten. Thank God Thomas has no qualms about firing Zook and beginning a new era, mind-set and culture at Illinois - a winning one for a change! Thomas's expressed mandate and goal is to get Illinois prominent on the national map so Zook must go.

Dan Bloeme wrote on November 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

Batman, you are wrong on several counts. First the pro-Zook posts are the irrational ones. Second Illinois has not improved over last season. Last season Illinois finished 4-4 in the Big Ten, while this year they finish 3-5 or 2-6, definitely a step backwards. Last year Illinois demolished Penn State at PSU, this year they lost. Last year they played Michigan close in Ann Arbor, this year they were blown out by Michigan at home. With a rare very favorable 8-game home schedule and no Missouri, Illini should have improved by 2-3 wins over last year but could finish 6-7, 7-6 or 8-5 which is not the improvement a 8-game home schedule should have afforded.

If you want to look at the body of work which AD's do look at, Zook will have gone to only 3 bowls in 7 years, not most every year like many schools in the B1G. Zook is now 34-50 overall and 18-37 in Big Ten in his seven seasons up to now. That is absolutely, positively unacceptable. Guenther may have accepted that but new sheriff in town Thomas won't.

Batmantis wrote on November 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

Dan, you bring up some good points, however to address a few of the others.  Yes, the Illini did not play Mizzou this year, but they played Arizona State and beat them.  ASU beat Missouri and overall is a better team this year. All the losses have been close this year (it is debatable whether you can call the Michigan game a blowout) and while technically this year will not be an improvement over last year, it is looking similar and as such it is hard to call it a backslide.  It is the team's misfortune that the losses have all come consecutively.

Two bowls in a row is not something that happens much around here.  Yes, I realize there are more bowl games than states these days, but it has been this way for about twenty years now and Illinois has not managed back to back appearances during this time.

As far as the whole "living with mediocrity" angle goes, sure, we can all spout out indigiation about "look at Wisconsin, why can't that be us!" just as I can pout about "look at Warren Buffet, why can't that be me!"  Neither one will do any good. Part of building a tradition is maintaining stability. To fire a coach during a season that will end up with more W's than L's and shake up a good staff is not the way to find that stability.

DaisyJ wrote on November 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

The only reason Zook and other coaches are still here is because of MONEY. If we

moved Zook before this year, he would have been owed 3.9$$ million. It will stil be 2.6 Million

if he goes at end of season along with other coaches. If not for the cost, he would have

been long gone , he knows it , I do , and others.

kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

Overall, this may be the most sane (and least inane) group of comments I've seen here. Oops, I have to retract this part. The fire brigade has returned.

Sadly, I fear, the money issue will ultimately drive the coaching decision, even though the coaches are doing an overall much better job than we've seen in Champaign since Mackovic left town. Because our pathetic pseudo-fans don't support the program, Thomas will choose to roll the dice on a likely unknown quantity.  He will do this, if for no other reason, to show that he is doing SOMETHING, whether he even really believes that change is the right thing.

Illinois is not going to find a better coaching staff than the one we have now, and I don't think the desired outcome of a decison to replace the staff (more butts in seats on Saturday afternoons in Champaign) will be achieved, because wins/losses with a new staff are not likely to be better any time soon, either, and could reasonably be expected to be worse during the "rebuilding/turnaround" phase.  

As someone else commented to those who think Illinois can attract (and, oh by the way, KEEP) a big name or rising-star coach that will deliver the goods soon and consistently, DREAM ON!



kfj wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

The continued negative posts are typical of stupid individuals. Mr. Thomas would be making a HUGH mistake to fire Mr. Zook and lose and in turn the very best assistant coaches we have seen in decades. That stated, buy season tickets like the rest of us before you post dumb responses on here. Mr. Tate plays both sides way too much and should give it up! Fire Ron Zook,then be ready to lose all the other coaches. Typical Midwest response, never satisfied.

Go Illini!!!!

DaisyJ wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

K>>>>>>>>>>rooting for the Illini and studying their actual record in the Big Ten is all I need to know about how good our coaches are.

kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Daisy and all you other wanna be ADs:

Who you gonna hire?

When will this new hire deliver a product worthy of your support?

And what does that product look like to you? 

DaisyJ wrote on November 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm

K<<<<<<<<<<<<. who to hire,,,hum,,,,well, if I do not have  person to hire, I guess you are right. we keep and like who we have. hahahaha

kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 8:11 pm

The point, Daisy, is you don't just change for the sake of change. If you're not confident you can find someone who will bring about improvement...you would still plow ahead with your half baked idea, anyway, wouldn't you? Well, me & you, we're through. haha

Moonpie wrote on November 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm

The majority of fans were Chief Illini supporters? By what poll? There goes Saint Tate again, like a GOP candidate, assuming that how he wants reality to be is actually the way it is. Memo to the Saint: there are actually Illini fans who don't endorse racist stereotypes.

Of course, the ones who do like racist stereotypes will show up quickly, as Saint surrogates, to set us all straight here that racism is okay.

And remember the ages old and tired argument -- the Chief honors Native Americans.

kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Is there any joy in your life?

Moonpie wrote on November 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

Hi, kjwalker -- how predictable that you offer an insult. That's typical from folks who are in lockstep behind some failed philosophy.

Because you can't argue anything on the merits, you instead lash out irrationally -- sort of very Tea Partyish, for sure. Very Michelle Bachmann, to be sure.

Think of your logic: because I oppose racism, you suggest I must be unhappy. Are you, then, a happy racist?

Have a darn nice -- and happy -- day!

OKOMIS wrote on November 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm

you people get worked up, don't you... it's just business, not personal

no matter how good a guy zook is, and he is, he's got to go.

no matter what reason he's failed, snake bitten, bad calls or just stupid, it's time...

look at MSU since they made a change. 

i'd like to think just once we got a shot at anywhere near a big ten championship

i don't think it's that unreasonable to expect to compete on a level

with iowa, wisconsin or MSU


kjwalker@charter.net wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm

From National Coach of the Year in 2007, to not good enough for ILLINOIS in 2011. Really? You don't remember that far back?

jules61 wrote on November 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm

You really are not going to get better than zook right now.  I think of all the more mediocre teams we have had in the past and am glad to see them get

into a few bowl games.  Me personally, i don't think zook is all that bad.  someone earlier wrote a great post. Zook is not the one that drops the balls,

throws interceptions, has kicks blocked, gets sacked etc....you have to lay some of the blame

on the level of talent.  which by the way is not that bad either. you zook haters, you cannot blame him for everything.  and

whoever Moonpie is, you are just another jesse jackson, al sharpton type that just cannot stand

to miss a chance to shove race into an issue.  Knock it off.  race has nothing to do with Ron Zook

or the football team.  You are part of the problem in the world. change your focus.

see the good in people. racism is the least of our problems these days.  no need to interject racism into a situation where it just does not exist.

crackerman wrote on November 24, 2011 at 8:11 am

I'm late on getting my two cents in. Zook was hired to do a job and simply can't deliver. This actually goes back, as everybody that follows illini football knows, with Turner & Tepper. This is a very long stretch of Mediocre football at its best. I believe that RG as the old AD did Illini football no favors in regards to hiring of coaches and their tenures at Illinois. This is a business, and the business of college football is to win games and put butts in the seats! Mr. Zook must go, regardless of his nice guy demeanor. The new AD knows the task at hand, Illinois football needs new leadership!

bluehavana wrote on November 24, 2011 at 9:11 am

There is no problem with academics or compliance, so it is only a business decision for Mike Thomas.  The home schedule was great this particular year, but even in this environment there were many empty seats for several home games.

Right or wrong, the masses are not going buy tickets and attend Illinois football games accepting the Illini will only be real good every 7 or 8 years.  Trouble is this has been the truth for a few decades.

In times of mediocrity, everyone needs hope.  Illini basketball has new enthusiasm because of improved recruiting and hope for better days.  Football had Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn, and Juice Williams, nationally known recruits who provided hope.

With recruiting down, and on field performance of players and coaches average at best, the idea of hope is beginning to fade.  Mike Thomas needs a good product or the hope of a good product to grow Illinois football.  Which does he have today?   

OKOMIS wrote on November 24, 2011 at 11:11 am


18-37 in the big ten… enough said… and by the way, 18-37 isn’t mediocre…. far from it..

Because the 2 guys before were worse we should be happy with 18-37??

Wow… way to shoot for the stars Illini!!

illinifaningeorgia wrote on November 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Zook always had the reputation as a lousy in-game coach but was considered a superb recruiter.  Now he is lousy in both.

As Tate pointed out in a story a few days ago:  During his tenure, Zook has a terrible record in total wins and losses, conference record, and record versus ranked teams.  Illinois is only one game over .500 at home in his tenure.

On the recruiting side, he started off fine with classes in the top 30 for the first couple of years.  It's been going down ever since. Next year's class is ranked in the mid-60's, and 11th in the B1G.

Zook apologists:  don't hang your hat on the "bowl game 2 years in a row" reasoning.  Remember, Thomas has said more than once that he will review Zook's entire body of work.  If he follows through on that reasoning, in the words of that great philosopher, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, "he gone"




My-Illini wrote on November 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I will make this short....anybody and I repeat anybody who thinks Zook is a good coach is blind as heck lol. Practically every game I have watched on TV the announcers no matter what channel are completely baffled by his play-calling and clock management...I hope they do get a new coach, but please..please retain Koenning...imagine psycho Leach's offense with his defense...and Urban may be headed to OSU...conference would be more interesting overnight. just my 11 pennies worth...

My-Illini wrote on November 26, 2011 at 10:11 am

On second thought I would get Leach, keep Koenning and also Petrino...he would probably excel with Leach...could be very interesting!

illiniphil85 wrote on November 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Having endured most of the purgatory that has been Illinois football for most of the last 50 years,  I'm not firmly entrenched in the fire Zook camp. It can and has been worse. I do think that the perception of the program has improved slightly under Zook, and I do think the staff has done a better than ave job of either player evaluation or player development. We are hurting in overall talent and depth. A couple of impact players could change that, it's a fine line between success and failure.

That being said, a couple of things that are hard for me to excuse are the ineptness of the offense and special teams with little in the way of adjustments from week to week. I can handle losing, I don't take it so well when you're losing doing the same thing over and over. I give props to Vic and the D for basically keeping us in every game, the team and us fans deserved a better fate. Sorry Ron, I have no problem seeing you finish the season, but barring some miraculous developments like a huge recruiting haul lining up at the door or some other unlikely senario,  it's probably time to move in another direction.