The main story surrounding the Illinois Fighting Illini losing 28-17 to the Wisconsin Badgers today is the fact that Illini Head Coach Ron Zook is a “dead man walking.”
New Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said he won’t make a decision until after the season is over, so I wouldn’t expect to hear anything concrete until after the season’s final game- next Saturday at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Sure, there might be a bowl game, but the axe could fall on Zook’s head a week from Sunday.
The Illini blew a 10-point second half lead to Wisconsin, as the Badgers had TD drives of 2, 30, 44, and 39 yards. No, that’s not a typo, it’s an indication of how POOR the Illini special teams are. And how their offense keeps turning it over, but that’s another story for another time.
For now, I’ll list (in no particular order) the top 5 fireable qualities in Ron Zook WITHOUT mentioning his 34-50, 18-37 in the Big Ten record while at Illinois. That’s obviously reason #1; the W-L record speaks for itself.
1. People vote with their feet, see the introductory picture
Illinois is averaging around 50,000 fans a game this year, in a stadium that seats just over 60,000. If you want to know where the University will get the $2.8 million it will cost to buy out the last two years of Zook’s contract, look at the attendance figures. By that, I mean do a cost/benefit analysis of the tickets not being sold, think of the opportunity cost of all the fans who will (not might, but will) come back after Zook is gone.
The decision of former Athletic Director Ron Guenther to give Zook an extension a few years back, and a raise last year is looking a lot like the Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano contracts during the Sam Zell regime with the Cubs. Pay the money now, let the next owner worry about ROI later.
2. His play-calling, and then his public explanation of his play-calling
His play-calling is bad enough, but the way he defends his play-calling to the media (especially after the Western Michigan game, when his bad decision making and even worse, his rationale for those decisions, almost gave the Illini win away to an inferior MAC team) is intelligence insulting. I often forget that to much of America his name is a punch-line. The WMU game this year, the Ohio State game last year, and then there’s the 2006 loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, in which Zook inexplicably went for 2-pt conversions not once, but twice (both attempts failed) with the game tied early in the second quarter of what ended up being a 1-pt loss. The Zooker told the media afterward that the decisions didn’t matter.
Even though it was a ONE point loss (32-31).
So there’s three examples, but believe me there’s plenty more.
3. Recruiting, his supposed strength, has tailed off
Yes, the Martez Wilson, Arrelious Benn, Vontae Davis class was one of the best in college football that season. However, what has he really done in recruiting since then? Rashard Mendenhall was a Ron Turner recruit. And the three future NFL guys I mentioned above all had at least season among their three in Champaign in which they really struggled.
When Zook first arrived on campus he had a “Bel-I-eve” slogan to market the program. A lot of the materials looked like (or at least came off like) religious literature, and were made to gain the blind faith of Illini nation in him. And if you want to use faith as a way to recruit players and fans that’s okay. (How many fans does Notre Dame have simply due to religion/ethnicity?)
But when you recruit these “character players” or “moral values” recruits who end up getting into legal trouble, and have to be dismissed from the program for off the field issues, you look hypocritical. Melvin Alaeze and Derrick MacPhearson come to mind first, but there have been a whole host of arrests among Illini players under Zook’s tenure. It hasn’t been the 2010 Pitt Panthers or anything; just way too many for an administration to look the other way while the team is losing on the field as well.
4. Not a good public face for the University
On Tuesday, he walked out on his weekly press conference because a reporter asked him about his future. Last year he gave us the college football version of Jim Mora’s infamous NFL “playoffs, you’re talking playoffs?” rant. (Watch video here)
In 2010 he made a very condescending value judgment to a reporter who asked about a DUI incident within the program. Zook may look a lot like one of the main characters on AMC’s hit show “Mad Men,” but he is anything but ad exec slick when it comes to PR.
5. Large Portion of Illini Community never warmed up to him
Zook suffered from the same bias as Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. Many of the Wolverines faithful never liked the hire from the start, and so he faced an uphill battle. Zook entered Illinois with a reputation of being the college gridiron’s Vinny Del Negro. (Remember the popularity of the fireronzookcom URL among Florida Gators fans?) He’s done nothing to win them over. Since starting 6-0, the Illini have lost five straight and really looked woefully unprepared in many of those games. Illinois could not even score a point in the first half of four straight games- how’s that for not being ready to play?
And in successive years they “got beat by the same team twice.” By that I mean, the emotional hangover in losing a very big game to a good opponent led to them getting beat again by a much inferior opponent the next week. In 2010, they lost 67-65 at Michigan in 5 OT. Then came home and fell way behind to a really BAD Minnesota team. They regained the lead, but blew it in the end. This year, they suffered their first loss to Ohio State in midseason. Then the next week got outscored 21-0 in the first half by a Purdue team with less talent. They outscored the Boilermakers 14-0 in the second half, but their wake up call was too little, too late. If this isn’t an indictment of Zook’s lack of coaching ability, I don’t know what is.
The University terminated Ron Turner before his contract expired, why should Zook be allowed to stay?
A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; he’s also a member of the FWAA, USBWA and SPJ. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.Follow paulmbanks