Monday, November 28, 2011

Embarrassing Loss to Minnesota Does in Zook

After an utterly embarrassing loss to a decrepit Minnesota football team Saturday, the writing was on the wall for the end of the Ron Zook era. It didn't take long for that to come to fruition, with new Athletic Director Mike Thomas firing Zook earlier this afternoon. After a rollercoaster season that saw the Illini start 6-0, only to lose their final 6 games, it was a move that was hardly unexpected. Now the onus is on Thomas to make an impact hire at Illinois that puts the program on the map on a consistent basis.

Zook is a true class act
I've made a point of calling for Zook's job in this blog over and over again. Because of that, I won't repeat those same complaints in this post other than to say that I don't feel he is the right coach to head an entire program. I wanted to take this opportunity to actually talk about the man himself, for as his outgoing press conference illustrates, the Zooker is all class. He didn't have to hold this press conference, but he did so out of respect for the people who worked with him for so long, his family, the Illinois fans, and his players. Notice him choke up when he talks about his players. That's what makes him such an elite recruiter - he truly becomes a second father to these players and they love him for it. It's really something to admire about the guy, and even starts to make you feel bad for him about losing his job. Those players would do anything for the guy, but coincidentally, the one thing they couldn't do was win for him. And at the end of the day, no matter how much you like the guy, how many positive things he brings to the table, and how well he reflects the values and goals of your university, the head coach of your football team needs to produce wins. Regardless, Zook will catch on somewhere in a BCS conference and become their recruiting coordinator, all with the cushion of a $2.6 million buyout from Illinois and 7 years of million dollar plus salaries. I wish him the best on behalf of all Illinois fans.

On top of that, it's hard not to recognize the good things he brought to Illinois and the positive change that occurred as a result. The program that Zook inherited was more than barren - it was practically deserted. It is no wonder then that his first couple of years as coach were rocky to say the least. Yet Zook changed the mentality of the program. He helped push through badly-needed renovations to Memorial Stadium. He brought in elite level recruits and started a pipeline to talent-rich recruiting hotbeds like Florida, Maryland, and even back to Chicago. He pushed through a uniform change. He pushed for and received funding to install top-notch facilities, including the largest football-only weight room in the country. And lest we forget, he led Illinois to a magical 2007 Rose Bowl season that we, especially for those of us in school at the time, will certainly not forget anytime soon. All of these things will prove essential to the next coach, whoever that may be. So while it may be true that Zook wasn't able to push the Illini over the top himself, the next coach who (hopefully) does so will only be able to do so because of all the tireless, enthusiastic hard work from Zook. It's something that us Illinois alumni, and all Illinois fans, should be ever grateful for.

Aside from that, what's next? What coach is out there that's going to build on the foundation started by Zook and turn Illinois into a perennial contender? I've written here already about the reasons that Illinois can be successful. All it will take is for Thomas to find the right man for the job. Will he turn to an experienced but available head coach? Will he look for an existing coordinator who is poised to take the next leap? When Zook took the job at Illinois 7 years ago, it was considered the bottom of the Big Ten basement with no hope of resurrection. Now, you have a program that in the least is in the middle of the Big Ten pack with the potential, like Iowa and Wisconsin, to be in the upper half of the conference every year. Coaches by the Numbers has a list of the usual suspects, from Mike Leach to Paul Chryst. I personally feel that Illinois is going to have to go after a coordinator from an existing program. Coaches who come from previous experience, like Leach, are not the right type to revitalize a program and lead it to the top. Names like Manny Diaz and Jim McElwain are not pipe dreams - if Indiana, the true bottom feeder in Big Ten football history, can nab Kevin Wilson from Oklahoma, surely coordinators from big time schools like Texas and Alabama have a chance of landing at Illinois.

Really though, the decision is going to be huge for Mike Thomas as the new AD. At Cincinnati, he turned to an under the radar type hire in Brian Kelly to turn around the irrelevant Bearcat football program. All Kelly did was lead the Bearcats to a 34-6 record during his tenure, with two BCS bowls and an undefeated season. I'd say that makes a football program relevant. I don't necessarily think he needs to go after a big-name coordinator from a big school. I'd be fine if Thomas did his due diligence and simply found the right man for the job. He clearly had the ability to spot the qualities that make up a successful football coach in Kelly, who was only the coach at Central Michigan. I hope he does the same thing here and brings aboard a coach that makes Illini nation proud.

Again, we thank you for everything you contributed to the Illinois family, Zooker. Things didn't always work out on the football field, but you worked your ass off and left Illinois in an infinitely better place than it was before. You made an impact across the community and throughout the University. You took it upon yourself to recruit kids across the country to come to Illinois when it wasn't cool to do so, and you treated each one of them like a son of yours. For all of that and more, we're grateful, and wish you the best.


Greg A. said...

Well said Dave. As much as me and you have talked about wanting a change, watching that press conference almost made me want to sign up for one more year with the Zooker....Almost being the key word. He truly was a good man, but our program finally has built up a little momentum and talent. We have to capitalize on that and take the next step forward...unfortunately Zook wasn't going to make that happen.

Dave Johnsen said...

Agreed Greg. If there was anyone I would have wanted to succeed it was Zook. Awesome guy, press conference was hard to watch and feel bad for the guy. And really, only people who follow them closely know the real Zooker. At least he didn't leave the place in the crapper like Turner did. Lots of opportunity here, so let's hope Thomas nails it.