By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt
Read on as our two resident Illini experts discuss the tenure of Ron Zook and speculate on his and the University’s next move.
(PBanks) It’s eerie how similar the Illinois tenure of Ron Zook is following the exact same story arc as another Ron, the man who preceded him, Ron Turner. Zook got off to a very rough start in Champaign, going 4-19 his first two seasons. Turner had an almost identically awful beginning, with a record of 3-19 his first two seasons on the job. But of course, the Illinois community was patient, letting the coach build his program with his players, and in the third year of their tenures, both Rons broke through with a bowl appearance.
Both Turner and Zook were able to bring Illinois into a BCS game (both got thoroughly destroyed in those New Year’s Day bowl games) then both failed miserably in the seasons following their BCS bowl appearance. Expectations were sky high following Turner’s postseason appearances in ’99 and ’01, and in both ’00 and ’02, he finished below .500. But here’s where it gets weird.
In the season following the BCS, Turner went 5-7, and in the year after that finished 1-11, with the only win being over the FCS’ Illinois State. Zook went 5-7 last year, after the Rose Bowl, and this year the souls of Illination have been crushed even further as the team has one win halfway through the year. And again it was over ISU in the 2nd game of the season. Does lightning indeed strike twice? Is that passage the most depressing thing you’ve read in quite some time?
(PSchmidt) It depresses me, it does, but stop it man! You’re really freaking me out! Seriously, I’ve got goose bumps!! Well…not really…but it’s warm in here. You know.
I can’t even believe what I’m about to type: I miss Ron Turner. I do. He took us to two bowl games with worse recruiting classes. There was SOME talent there, but not near the talent we have right now. And I, quite frankly, would much rather have a team with less talent overachieve every once in a while, than have a team that has all the talent in the world have one good season and then underachieve every other season.
On the flip side, is it possible that this is all just the Curse of Rashard Mendenhall? He “burned the house down,” so to speak, on his way out the door. He helped convince his brother to transfer. He basically said he’d never come back to the University as long as Zook was the head coach. Is this all part of that punishment??
(PMB) Turner had one more season, in which he went a similarly awful 3-8, and Illinois cut him with two years left on his contract. But what about the financials here? Are there escape clauses for the program in Zook’s contract? Would the boosters step in to pay the difference? I know Ron Guenther is putting off retirement to deal with this situation, where do we go from here?
(PS) As far as I know, and I’ve done some research on the matter, there is NOT a buyout in Zook’s contract. Which sounds insane. But might actually be true. Typically Illinois won’t buy out coaches’ contracts anyway, so maybe that’s a moot point.
The economy is certainly going to play a part here, as the state has absolutely no money to pay the balance of Zook’s contract. We broke as a joke, so to speak. I have a solution for everyone involved, but I think that I’m going to make you all wait until later in the story here…
(PMB) Did you hear that? That’s the sound of Arrelious Benn’s NFL Draft stock falling, much like Vontae Davis’ stock dropped last year. Is it the coaching staff’s fault? It’s interesting that the most valuable player BY FAR during the Zooker’s tenure was Rashard Mendenhall, a Turner recruit. He certainly could recruit running backs really well, he just couldn’t recruit any other position. Zook has certainly lived up to his reputation in Champaign “great recruiter, bad coach.” At Florida, he recruited 20/22 starters that won a national title…coached by someone else of course. Clearly, X and O are two letters not in his alphabet.
(PS) Very true. While I agree that Benn’s draft stock may be dropping, Vontae Davis’ stock dropping wasn’t entirely the coaching staff’s fault. Davis sleepwalked through the 2008 season; then, there were character questions with the fictional marijuana incident and teams’ inability to separate Vontae from his brother Vernon. While he did plummet (I had seen projections indicating he could be the top pick in the draft), it wasn’t entirely Zook’s fault.
As for Regis Benn, I think that the same theory that applies to Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant applies to Benn — Mel Kiper said, shortly after the Bryant incident that we’ve seen his body of work, and that even if he doesn’t play another college football down, his draft stock won’t fall.
The same is true for Benn. This season, the teams’ struggles are not his fault. The fact the quarterbacks’ can’t get him the ball is not his fault, either. Everyone knows what kind of player he is, what kind of physical specimen he is. None of that has changed with this season, and I would still be shocked if he wasn’t picked in the top 15 of the draft.
(PMB) What was your least favorite coaching decision of the Zook era? Mine was 2006, versus Indiana, and the day before Basketball Judas Eric Gordon de-committed and signed with the Hoosiers. The Illini decided to go for 2 after a touchdown early in the game with the score tied, for some illogical reason. They didn’t get it and lost the game by one. Here’s the kicker. After the game, Zook said in the press conference after the game that “it didn’t matter that much”. There are no words for that.
(PS) I’m going with this season against Penn State, when Zook was talking about the hurry-up offense. The only time we effectively moved the ball against the Nittany Lions was when we were in the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. We had to keep doing it. But Zook basically dismissed that, saying, “Hey, I told the coaches that we need to get back to what we’re doing, and take our time, run the football some.” Really Ron? Somehow, shockingly…Penn State blew us out of the water in the second half. Funny how that happened.
(PMB) Any ideas on possible replacements? Bring back Mike Locksley? J/K ha ha! Certainly Mike Schultz will never work in this town again.
(PS) OK…here’s my solution to the Ron Zook contract problem. I don’t think that Zook can possibly get another head coaching job anywhere in the NCAA. It just doesn’t make sense, and no AD that has seen what he’s done at Illinois would ever hire him to head a program ever again. But…why wouldn’t a program sign him on to be the Offensive Coordinator, and put him in charge of the entire recruiting program??
Well…why not do that at Illinois? Zook would have to swallow an immense amount of pride to take the demotion, but it would give him the best of both possible worlds, keeping him in charge of the things he’s good at — offense and recruiting — without keeping the pressure of motivating the whole program on him.
Plus, it ends the speculation of what to do about Zook’s contract…we’re pretty much stuck with it, on the hook for it either way, so why not USE him? And use him in the manner that suits him best? I think that it really is the only possible answer for everyone, but especially Guenther and Zook, if only they can swallow their pride and accept that.Follow paulmbanks