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.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org