Zook extension a reward for recruiting
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
More than a few people have asked me if Illinois would fire Ron Zook if the team endures another losing season this fall.
You could make a valid argument for a dismissal. Zook would own only one winning season (2007) out of five in Champaign. Plus, he undoubtedly would have wasted a stable of talent.
Those are two major offenses in this day and age, and would pink-slip a lot of coaches.
But my response to the queries is always the same -- look beyond the wins and losses. It's never easy to do, especially in these times, but you have to consider a program's profile and its history before pink-slipping a coach.
Illinois football hasn't seen consistent success since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when John Mackovic's and Lou Tepper's teams posted winning records in five out of seven years (with a 6-6 mark thrown in there). The Illini followed an 8-4 mark in 1999 with a 5-6 clunker the next year. Illinois won the Big Ten title in 2001, but went 5-7 in 2002. The same thing happened from 2007 (9-4) to 2008 (5-7). So this is nothing new for the orange and blue.
What is different is the program's national and regional profile. Not only did the school complete a much needed renovation of Memorial Stadium, but the team continues to compete nationally for top recruits, thanks in large part to Zook. It might be a while before he brings in another class like the 2007 crop, headlined by Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, but Illinois always will be in the Big Ten's top half in recruiting as long as Zook remains head coach. Illinois has become a much more desirable destination for good prospects, especially those from the Chicago area.
Zook's recruiting ability is the main reason why he's expected to receive a one-year contract extension next week. The extension doesn't include a raise, which is notable, but it gives Zook another small advantage to use when he courts high school players.
Until Zook wins consistently, he'll be knocked for his coaching ability. Everyone knows what Urban Meyer has done with Zook's recruits at Florida. Illinois once again boasts one of the league's most talented teams this season, but a tough schedule and some questions on defense could derail things.
Zook maintained even before last season that the program hadn't arrived yet, and he turned out to be right. He's still in program-building mode, and he keeps adding a few sturdy bricks on the recruiting trail. Illinois will eventually lose patience with Zook if the results don't improve on the field, but as evidenced by the extension, the school isn't approaching that point yet.