Tate: Why not stick with Vic?

CHAMPAIGN — Ron Zook was not unlike many head football coaches who are secretive about their team practices and protective in their press conferences.

The goal is to appear cooperative without revealing much. It's called coach-speak.

Like this hot news: "We're excited to play Podunk and we're going to give it the full 60 minutes."

That's what made the appearance of UI interim coach Vic Koenning such a breath of fresh air. He began by welcoming the fan base to team workouts, said the athletes will be involved in the community, and was shockingly honest in his comments.

Among his revelations:

(1) "Our coaches must do what's best for themselves and their families. We have a professional staff and we'll do our best coaching and recruiting, and we'll also take time each day to look to the future. If someone is offered a job and needs to be there recruiting, he'll have to go. There are no guarantees here."

(2) "There is nothing that says I'll be here if I get a head job elsewhere. If they hire me and say they need me, then I have to go, just like the other coaches. And if Illinois' new head coach hires someone to come in and start recruiting here, we can only have nine coaches so someone has to go."

(3) Some players are on the borderline academically, Koenning describing this as "an academic two-minute drill" with final exams beginning Friday. He acknowledged: "We have to address some issues personnel-wise."

(4) The hours directly after Zook was fired was an inappropriate time to judge team morale, some players indicating indifference to a bowl game at that time. Koenning pointed out: "You play this game with your heart. When your family is broken up, it hurts. Whitney (Mercilus) was distraught when the question was asked and he regrets his response. The team attitude was a lot different the next day."

(5) Special teams will be reworked, Koenning saying: "Coach Zook worked hard on special teams. I realize that we're ranked near the bottom, and I think the players have something to do with that. This will be a big part of our bowl preparation. We'll begin with the punt team first, kickoff team second, and so forth. We'll start out by drafting the players we need on the punt team and go from there. We've got some guys who are not where they need to be."

(6) His options in terms of offense are "to work a lot harder or delegate ... I have a huge amount of respect for Paul (Petrino), and I don't want to ruin our friendship over one game. He is a brilliant coach and a great motivator."

Tackling not a problem

Since this has been on my mind, let me ask it in the open. If head coaches rebuff Illinois, and Mike Thomas feels obliged to turn to a coordinator, why not Koenning? If Kevin Sumlin winds up at Texas A&M or Arizona State, if Larry Fedora moves to North Carolina, if Butch Jones is a non-fit here, if Paul Rhoads and Steve Addazio would prefer to stay where they are, if there is no blockbuster head coach ready to take on the Illinois assignment, why choose somebody else's coordinator?

If I have second thoughts, it is because my preference is to have an offensive coordinator in charge. That worked here with Mike White and John Mackovic, and would have worked with Ron Turner if the recruiting had held up. It is best to have the boss directing the attack, making the calls and handling clock management decisions. So my ultimate choice is an offensive mind who would retain Koenning.

Defensively, this was one of the best seasons in recent memory. Ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten on September 1, this original group of no-names held opponents to 291.8 yards per game, and finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in pass defense, fifth in tackles for loss, seventh in total defense, ninth in sacks and 26th in pass efficiency defense.

Let me repeat that. On the national scale, Illinois ranked No. 4 in pass defense, No. 5 in tackles for loss, and No. 7 in total defense. And Koenning has most of the starters back including the league's best sophomore linebacker (Jonathan Brown), a front four that includes All-American Whitney Mercilus (if he doesn't turn pro) and four veteran defensive backs.

My final comment on Koenning is that, assuming he doesn't land a head job, Illinois should do everything possible to retain him ... including consideration for the head job. This is not to overlook his awful record as head coach at Wyoming. That was a decade ago. More recently, his two years at Illinois have been highly impressive. Unfortunately, the special teams and the recent offense haven't kept pace.

Tate's tidbits

— Call me prejudiced because he's a longtime friend, but if you're looking for a firebrand with offensive know-how, why hasn't anyone mentioned Brad Childress? His positives: He has a greater attachment to the UI than any candidate, has the personality to bring a spark into the community, would quickly field a recruiter-oriented staff, and knows offense backwards and forwards. He was here during the Mike White years, helped Barry Alvarez uplift Wisconsin, was offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, and was 40-37 as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Childress, who sat out this season in Florida, wants the job and would hit the recruiting trail with a full head of steam. But as of Monday afternoon, he hadn't been contacted and doesn't seem to be a fit for what Thomas is looking for.

— Thomas said the Dec. 17 bowl games were never an option for Illinois, which is good because final exams run all the way through the 16th. It sounds like the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl didn't want Nevada as a repeat team and, since Army didn't qualify, came down to Missouri and Illinois. Gary Cavalli, executive director, said he received calls from nine conferences. Thomas described the negotiations as "highly fluid but I never had the sense that we'd sit home."

— Cavalli said that nearly half the bowls negotiate different payouts for competing contestants. So Illinois will receive $750,000 while agreeing to purchase 8,000 tickets, while UCLA is obligated for more tickets and receives a bigger payoff. Thomas is hopeful Illini fans in California will acquire their tickets through the UI, thereby reducing the 8,000. In the final analysis, all Big Ten teams will get the same multi-million share after game expenses and buyouts. Last year, the payout for just the conference's top two BCS games was $27 million.

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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Moonpie wrote on December 06, 2011 at 8:12 am

Here we go! Saint Tate gives the expected big sermon to tell the new AD who to hire. Let's hope Thomas is new enough not to feel compelled to kiss the Saint's ring and instead goes beyond the amatuerish Saint to hire the best coach available. Instead of hiring someone dynamic who might actually, finally, improve this awful program, the Saint mandates that his man must be the one. Don't listen, Mr. Thomas. Hire someone who won't feel obligated to kiss the backside of the saint.

demitrimaniscalaco wrote on December 06, 2011 at 10:12 am

It's the Sleepy Gazoo's #1 fan.  Moonpie!!!!!

  

Moonpie wrote on December 06, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi, demetri. You got it -- love the hype and cheerleading and general laziness by Sleepy Gazoo sports. And the condescension and arrogance fermented over many decades by Saint Tate. Aftet just one good game against an overrated team the Sleepy Gazoo suddenly has Foul Machine Leonard an equal to Bill Russell.

Dan Bloeme wrote on December 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm
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Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

Keep Vic Koenning!

* IN VIC WE TRUST *

oandb wrote on December 06, 2011 at 8:12 am

Childress probably wants the job. badly. The guy who is under the radar is Chuck Martin at ND. Recruting coordinator and safeties coach. Was a great coach at Grand Valley State (74-7) and a two-time national champ. From Rich east and played at Millikin (All-American on the field and in the classroom.) Great guy and would be a stellar hire.


 


 

Bear8287 wrote on December 06, 2011 at 11:12 am

Sounds like an interesting choice.  I'd really like to see Coach Koenning stay at Illinois. Martin is also a defensive coach but certainly had an impressive record at GVSU as the HC.


Given the better success with past offensive minded head coaches at Illinois and wanting to retain Koenning, does Martin fit? Given Martin's previous success as a HC, it does seem that he should have what it takes to be a successful HC.

Jam wrote on December 06, 2011 at 8:12 am

Loren,  I agree.  The defense was good and produced an All American.  Why bring in someone elses assistant. Coach Vic knows the players and he could hang on to many of the coaches.  Keep him at the UI and make him the Head Guy.

Leelnd wrote on December 06, 2011 at 8:12 am

I actually agree with the Childress comments.  If he is interested, he would be a home run. Can't believe he isn't being considered. I thought we were told that the new AD would look anywhere for a coach?

PEguy wrote on December 06, 2011 at 8:12 am

Totally agree!!  This guy is a class act and great coach!!  How many past seasons can you remember saying we never wrap up and tackle.  You can't say that anymore around Champaign because we are SOLID on D!!! KEEP VIC!!!

purple Illini fan wrote on December 06, 2011 at 9:12 am

As a Minnesota Vikings fan and an Illini fan let me say that Childress was a disaster as a head coach. He was anything but a class act and ran the Vikings into the ground. The offense had one good year and that seemed like it was despite Chilly not because of him. I'm glad he doesn't seem to be getting any consideration. It would be a nightmare pick in my opinion.

JimOATSfan wrote on December 06, 2011 at 9:12 am

Tate I agree, Koenning has been excellent at all he has been asked to do here at Illinois.  He needs to be kept, much like Ditka was told that Buddy Ryan will be your defensive coordinator when George Halas hired Ditka to be the head coach.

Your comments about Childress seem solid and worth serious consideration.  Although great coaches came out of Eastern Illinois (Shanahan and the NO Saints head coach) and MAC schools (wasn't OSU's Tressel from MIami of Ohio or Toledo bfore the Buckeye's hired him?) there is no reason why an ex-pro coach who gives a damn about the Illini shouldn't be chosen.

Some one was making a reasonable case for Kirby on the Steelers staff recently too. Qho has got a passion for all things Illinois?

Go Illini!

kfj wrote on December 06, 2011 at 10:12 am

I have stated that Illinois should keep the current staff in place. Award Vic K the head job. He can pick his new coordinators and retain the rest of the current coaches. Good luck to Paul P. on his return back to Arkansas. Go Illini!

SwifferFan wrote on December 06, 2011 at 10:12 am

Koennig will be someone's great hire.  I sincerely hope he's ours.  Already, we've seen positive signs of leadership with his approach to practices, attitude about priorities, but more importantly the results on the field.  It's amazing what our defense has done.  The defense has kept us competitive.

oskeewowwow wrote on December 06, 2011 at 2:12 pm
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I get the sense Koenning might be Thomas' man given the apparent lack of contact with other coaches, but then again most schools and coaches keep such contact quiet, so we really don't know who has and who hasn't been called. Keeping Vic would be a huge plus for the Illini. His defense is the only positive thing about this program and he seems to have the ability to motivate and coach up players. I'm not sold 100% on him as HC but Thomas should do everything possible to keep him as DC.

Moonpie wrote on December 06, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Agreed with oskeewowwow to keep Koening as DC. I don't think Thomas would elevate him to head coach because this is Thomas's first big Illini hire and he knows he has to hit a home run instead of a triple -- after clearing it with Saint Tate, of course!

Moonpie wrote on December 06, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Folks, look at today's Tribune for more insights on the job search. The Sleepy Gazoo must be too busy asking players their favorite colors.

butkus50 wrote on December 06, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Easy pick:

 

Coach K for head coach. Illini will not get big name coach and if they do, he will leave after success for next job (Self). Coach K had forth best defense in country without any help from special teams or offense. He is here, staff in place, will save $, and with some luck pick a great OC with Petrino gone.

 

 

JamesB wrote on December 06, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Another Viking fan here.  I was so happy when Childress got canned by the Vikings.  A horrible coach, completely lost the locker room.   Incompetence personified.  Do not hire!

urallfreaks wrote on December 07, 2011 at 4:12 pm

With fans like those posting above - a coach would be stupid to come here - or stupid to stay (Self) Go Jayhawks - everyone hates success particularly this fan base who has not tasted it in so long.

illiniphil85 wrote on December 08, 2011 at 9:12 am

Nothing to do with Tate's opinion, but I'd like to see Vic get a shot.