Chicago Colleges: Ron Zook
- The Rose Bowl produced some new selling points for Michigan State on the recruiting front. The Spartans still wait for word from Malik McDowell, but they did sign two other defensive ends.
- Minnesota is working hard to try and keep ESPN's No. 1 prospect for 2015 at home.
- Star rankings are an inexact science, Sam McKewon writes, and not necessarily a good gauge for Nebraska's new class. Bo Pelini's respect for the SEC can be seen in his recruiting blueprint.
- Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon talked about his soon-to-be new boss and the job he has done in Ann Arbor. Brady Hoke says five or six true freshmen could play right away.
- Looking at the top-10 targets in the Class of 2015 for Ohio State.
- Purdue hopes its new recruits bring a winning attitude to the program.
- Gary Andersen plans some position changes on Wisconsin's defense.
- Former Illinois coach Ron Zook is ready for a new challenge with the Green Bay Packers.
- Twenty Penn State players remain from the Joe Paterno era.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Illinois will host a football game in the city it covets but rarely has captured, at least in recent years. Already at their victory total from last season, the Illini on Saturday take on No. 17 Washington at Soldier Field, making their first appearance on the lakefront since 1994 and just their second ever.
Billed as Illinois' Chicago Homecoming, the game caps off a weekend of events, including a luncheon with Dick Butkus, a Chicago native who launched his legend at Illinois and cemented it with the Chicago Bears. Butkus, a two-time All-American linebacker and Big Ten MVP who led the Illini to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win against Washington 50 years ago, also will toss the coin before the game.
"We need to do something for the Chicago area because so many kids are leaving the state," Butkus told ESPN.com. "I just feel Illinois, with the largest number of alumni in the city of any school, we should be able to do a better job of recruiting kids out of here. We've got guys going to LSU, USC, the Michigans, Ohio States and Notre Dames, and even Northwestern.
"We've got to get back to getting our own kids to go to our own school."
The school's promotional video for the game is appropriately set to Diddy's "Coming Home," in which Skylar Grey sings:
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home, I'm coming home.
It will take more than rain to wash away the pain from the 2012 season, when Illinois went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game, or forgive the program's inability to capitalize on a Rose Bowl run in 2007 and a series of elite players who became high NFL draft picks. But for the first time in more than a year, the sun shone on the Illini, whose 45-17 victory against a good Cincinnati team last Saturday couldn't have come at a better time.
"It was important, especially beating a very good football team," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told ESPN.com. "I know there's buzz around the program. You would think there would be an impact moving forward with the game this weekend."
While Grey sings of kingdoms, Thomas in August 2011 famously proclaimed that he wanted Illinois to become "king of Chicago." He had recently become Illinois' AD, and his ambitious approach made sense for a school with a huge alumni/fan presence in the market but one that had largely disappeared from the sporting radar, at least in football.
Illinois moved the needle to start the 2011 season, recording its first 6-0 start in 60 years. The Illini proceeded to make history of a different sort, dropping the rest of their regular-season games to become the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. The collapse cost coach Ron Zook his job, and Thomas' hiring of Tim Beckman -- after being rebuffed by Kevin Sumlin and others -- didn't inspire much excitement in Chicago and around the state.
And then the 2012 season happened, when nothing went right for Beckman and his team. The clunky campaign ended with a 50-14 loss at rival Northwestern, which had combined consistent on-field success with an effective marketing campaign ("Chicago's Big Ten team) to make a dent in Chicago's saturated sports market.
Illinois entered this season as a near-consensus last-place pick, and its homecoming game at Soldier Field -- scheduled before the 2012 season -- looked like a tough sell, if not an impossible one, to a fan base that, despite its size, puts basketball first and seems quick to dismiss the football program, even in better times.
That's why the Cincinnati win could be so important. It allowed Illinois fans, including those in the Chicago area, to feel good about their program for the first time in a while.
"It gives us a sense of an identity," said senior wide receiver Miles Osei, who grew up near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Ill. "People in the Chicago area and people that follow Illinois football can sense that. Maybe in the past they haven't had that much of an identity, but we're definitely establishing it."
When Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side, Illinois had a much stronger presence in the city. He remembers facing future Illini teammates such as Jim Grabowski and Gregg Schumacher in city playoff games.
Illinois coach Pete Elliott and his staff relentlessly recruited city players. Bill Taylor lured Butkus out of Vocational High School. But the slush-fund scandal in 1966 led to Elliott's resignation, followed by 13 losing seasons in the next 14 years.
Butkus recalls that most of Elliott's assistants went to work for Levi Strauss in sales after things fell apart in Champaign.
"Dammit, those guys knew how to sell," Butkus said. "They were a young group, just great guys. You wanted to play for 'em. We had talented guys. I just do not understand why we have a tough time recruiting out of here. I guess playing at Soldier Field, we're trying to get the presence going, but you've got to work the high schools."
Beckman and his assistants are trying to do just that. They held three camps in the area this summer and a spring scrimmage at Gately Stadium on the city's South Side.
Zook made local recruiting splashes with players such as Martez Wilson and Juice Williams, both Chicago natives (Williams also attended Vocational High). The pipeline to elite prospects since has dried up a bit, although Aaron Bailey, a four-star quarterback from Chicago suburb Bolingbrook, headlined the 2013 class.
"It's huge," Beckman said. "It's not like three guys are up there and they recruit Chicago. Every coach on this staff has a piece of Chicago, so that everybody in that city gets to meet our coaching staff, from quarterback coach to DB coach.
"We're not to where we want to be, but we’ve definitely made strides."
"That's been baffling me for 48 years," he said. "I don't understand it."
He hopes the Chicago homecoming can be a starting point, and the mood around the game and the events undoubtedly will be better after the Cincinnati win. The hope is that the good feelings will translate into more butts in seats on Saturday.
As of Tuesday, Illinois was approaching 40,000 tickets sold, according to Jason Heggemeyer, the school's associate athletic director for ticketing and sales. Thomas said 50,000 "might be a little bit ambitious" but added that the school's Chicago-based fans often wait to buy tickets for events like Illinois' annual basketball game at the United Center. The walk-up crowd also could be good.
"You’d hope Saturday's win would resonate with a good number of people," Thomas said. "We haven't played up there since the early 90s."
The weekend will be a test run of sorts, as Thomas is interested in playing more football games in Chicago. After launching the "Illinois. Our State. Our Team" marketing campaign in August 2012 and forming a Chicago athletics advisory board in February, Thomas is looking for different and more aggressive ways to brand Illinois in the area.
"You can't take a day off," Thomas said. "Year in and year out, you've got to have a real presence up there, and I don't think in the past that's been the case."
Thomas is right about the recent past, but there was a time when Illinois football truly resonated in the Midwest's largest market. Butkus lived through it, and he wants to bring it back.
"Shoot, we'd all like to play in the BCS championship, but that's not where we're at right now," he said. "At least give the team some support. If they know of anybody or their own kids looking to play, why wouldn't you go to Illinois? It's a great school.
"We've just got to spread the word and get people more excited about it."
Even Beckman, injected with some truth serum, likely would acknowledge the Illini should have been more subtle.
But Beckman's ultimate goal with the endeavor -- to boost depth on his roster -- was completely understandable. Illinois lacked the scholarship numbers of many of its Big Ten brethren. As injuries began piling up during the season, Illinois' depth issues became magnified. Those issues remain entering the offseason.
Beckman isn't planning a second raid attempt on Penn State. Instead, he and his assistants have turned their attention toward the junior-college ranks.
Illinois has secured commitments from five junior college players, by far the most in the Big Ten. It's the largest juco haul Illinois has had since the Mike White era in the early 1980s. According to The (Champaign) News-Gazette, Beckman's predecessor Ron Zook brought in eight junior college players in seven seasons.
And Beckman is far from through.
From The News-Gazette:
Beckman's goal is to bring in as many as eight JC transfers.
"The way to push this program forward, and the way I've seen it done, is with people," Beckman said Friday after returning from another of his recruiting trips. "We have a lack of depth in our upper classes, and we need to get more quality players involved. There are opportunities for players on this team, and we have to surround them with new additions. We accumulated junior college transcripts and brought them in so the university could tell us the ones that they thought would be successful academically here. We've had a good response in this area."
Beckman told the newspaper that along with five high school recruits expected to enroll early, Illinois should have 10-13 early enrollees in January. The Illini have only a handful of fifth-year seniors, and their freshman class also is fairly small.
Some might scoff at the juco strategy, which isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other power conferences. There are definite risks with juco players, although many pan out. But Beckman has little choice given Illinois' depth concerns, and because of the pressure he'll face to win in Year 2 after a disastrous 2-10 campaign this fall.
Illinois could sign the largest class in the Big Ten in February. ESPN Recruiting currently ranks Illinois' class seventh in the Big Ten and 39th nationally .
Illinois fans have been critical of Beckman this season as the Illini have gone 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Big Ten. The Illini are currently on an eight-game losing streak and have been outscored 283-104 during that span. They play their final game of the season against rival Northwestern on Saturday.
Penn State was supposed to fall apart after a nightmarish offseason, a historic coaching transition, a seemingly crippling mid-summer roster reduction and an 0-2 start.
Illinois entered the season following back-to-back bowl wins and, despite a coaching change, boasted one of the league's better defenses and a talented roster.
The teams' positions have flipped five games into the season. Penn State continued to roll Saturday with its third consecutive win, taking control early and cruising to a 35-7 win at Memorial Stadium. Led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin, the Lions continued to execute well on both sides of the ball.
Penn State is the hottest team in the Leaders division -- and perhaps the Big Ten. The Lions should be 4-1, and really have played just one bad half all season. Coach Bill O'Brien is doing a fantastic job.
Not surprisingly, O'Brien and Illinois coach Tim Beckman had a very brief handshake after the game. This one was personal for O'Brien after Beckman's summer roster poaching attempts, but his team played with the right type of emotion and overwhelmed Beckman's Illini.
Illinois looked completely lifeless early on, made a brief rally in the third quarter but couldn't fully turn the corner against Penn State, which left the door open a little longer than O''Brien would have liked. After committing six turnovers last week against Louisiana Tech, the Illini had three giveaways Saturday, and never truly got in the game on their home field.
Mauti has been the Big Ten's top linebacker and arguably the league's top defender through the first five weeks. He had another huge performance Saturday with two interceptions, including one he returned for 99 yards just before halftime, setting a team record for longest interception return. You knew Mauti would play inspired ball after everything that happened this summer, and he has stepped up in a big way.
McGloin continued his surprising start, picking apart Illinois' defense for 211 pass yards and adding three rushing touchdowns. It was nice to see McGloin get more receivers involved besides Allen Robinson, as tight end Matt Lehman (5 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD) had a big day. The Lions' offensive line also imposed its will near the goal line, and Zach Zwinak (19 carries, 100 rush yards, 2 TDs) turned in a very nice performance.
Illinois has to be shaken after its third blowout loss of the season, its second at home. The Illini have been outscored 87-31 in their past eight quarters. I thought their defense would fare better against a non-spread offense. Illinois' offense, meanwhile, continues to sputter. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put up some decent passing numbers (270 yards), but he had two more interceptions, and couldn't get the team in the end zone while the game was still in doubt.
Special teams miscues were a major problem for Illinois under Ron Zook, and they continued Saturday. A fumbled punt return set up Penn State's first touchdown, and Illinois also missed a short field-goal try.
With upcoming trips to Wisconsin and Michigan, Illinois could be headed for a long season.
Penn State, meanwhile, heads home to Happy Valley riding high.
If there aren't a few tweets sent out from Beckman's account (@coachbeckman) every morning between 6-8 a.m. -- with several exclamation points included -- someone should probably call for a wellness check. Twitter is just one of several tech tools Beckman and his staff use to connect with fans and recruits.
"It's been unbelievable, the change because of technology," Beckman told ESPN.com on Thursday before an appearance on the Illinois Coaches Caravan in the Chicago suburbs. "With the iPad and Vudu or Tango or Skype, what used to be a phone call is now a visual. What we can do when we're talking to them, with the backgrounds [at Illinois' facilities] and different things. Players want to see themselves."
Beckman credits his assistants for the fast start to 2013 recruiting, which included a verbal from heralded quarterback prospect Aaron Bailey. The Illini have had just one verbal commit by this date in each of the past two years.
Both the 2011 and 2012 classes received so-so marks.
"In today's age, the way recruiting's going and how fast it's going, there's no question [a fast start is important]," Beckman said. "Getting players on your campus, meeting your staff, meeting your staff's families, meeting everybody that's going to be involved in your student-athlete's life is very important."
Beckman is known as a strong recruiter, and he succeeds another at Illinois in former coach Ron Zook. But like all FBS head coaches, Beckman can't recruit off campus during the spring evaluation period (April 15-May 31).
That's where technology comes in.
"I love recruiting," he said. "As a head football coach, when you can't go out in April and May, [technology] is the only way you're able to touch base with those players. So I think it's great."
Big Ten fans want big names, even if they're more hyped than proven. There's a sense that Big Ten programs should be able to reach further than the MAC, even though the MAC has produced some excellent major-conference coaches, many of whom have done well in the Big Ten. Some are known only by their first names: Woody, Bo and Ara. All three succeeded at Big Ten programs after coming from a MAC school, Miami (Ohio).
Still, coaching searches are often the time when fan perception meets program reality. It happened this week at Illinois.
The rumor mill began buzzing Tuesday that Illinois was close to a deal with Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Regarded as a rising star in coaching, Sumlin is one of those names that gets fans excited, even if his track record doesn't quite match the hype around him. He runs an exciting offense at Houston, led by quarterback Case Keenum. He's a Big Ten guy (Purdue product) who had great success as a Big 12 assistant. Perhaps most important, he's wanted by others.
I never bought the Sumlin-to-Illinois talk. With a vacancy at Texas A&M, it makes too much sense for Sumlin to eventually move up the road to College Station. Illinois wanted him, but he didn't want Illinois. Predictably, the Sumlin buzz died down and Toledo's Tim Beckman became the target for Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.
Beckman will be introduced as Illinois' coach at a 4 p.m. ET news conference Friday in Champaign, Ill. He comes to the Illini after recording a 21-16 record in three seasons with Toledo.
There's a lot to like about Beckman. He's an Ohio native who knows the Big Ten and has recruited well, particularly in his home state. He has worked for successful programs (Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Bowling Green) and for successful head coaches (Mike Gundy, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer). He took over a Toledo program dealing with a point-shaving scandal and led the Rockets to 8-win seasons in each of the past two years. He's known as a tireless worker with a fiery personality.
I have a feeling Illinois fans will feel better about the hire after Friday's news conference.
But some still will only see "MAC coach." And that's fine. Beckman will have to win them over by winning. If he mirrors what former Toledo coach Gary Pinkel has done at Missouri, or what former Toledo coach Nick Saban did at Michigan State, or what Bo, Woody and Ara did at Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern, respectively, no one will remember where he came from.
When Thomas announced Ron Zook's firing, he noted that his track record shows he hires coaches with previous experience leading programs. He didn't add that he hires them from the MAC, as he brought both Brian Kelly and Butch Jones to Cincinnati from Central Michigan. Kelly had historic success at Cincinnati before moving onto Notre Dame, while Jones has the Bearcats at 9-3 this season. The Beckman hire follows the pattern for Thomas, who also reportedly expressed interest in two other MAC head-coaches: Eastern Michigan's Ron English and Temple's Steve Addazio.
If Beckman succeeds at Illinois, Thomas will be hailed as strong evaluator of under-the-radar coaches. If Beckman fails, Thomas will be seen as an AD who couldn't reel in the big fish. While Illinois reportedly was willing to spend big bucks for Sumlin, Beckman likely comes as a bargain, as he made $400,000 at Toledo.
Beckman inherits some talent at Illinois. Talent never was the problem for Zook, who recruited well. But Beckman will need to develop players better than his predecessor.
There are some potential concerns with Beckman, namely that he's a defensive coach whose defenses didn't exactly rank among the nation's best.
Here's a look:
2011 (Toledo): 76th in total defense, 89th in scoring defense
2010 (Toledo): 56th in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2009 (Toledo): 95th in total defense, 116th in scoring defense
2008 (Oklahoma State): 93rd in total defense, 73rd in scoring defense
2007 (Oklahoma State): 101st in total defense, 79th in scoring defense
To be fair, fielding a decent defense in the MAC is no easy task. But Toledo also surrendered 63 points in back-to-back games, including a 63-60 loss to Northern Illinois in which Beckman's timeout decisions came under heavy scrutiny.
Beckman could win points with many Illini fans by retaining Vic Koenning as his defensive coordinator. Koenning has done a masterful job with Illinois' defense, which boasts an All-American in defensive end Whitney Mercilus and ranked No. 7 nationally in yards allowed, No. 4 against the pass, No. 5 in tackles for loss and No. 9 in sacks. Whether their defensive philosophies match remains to be seen, but Beckman certainly should consider keeping Koenning.
His bigger task will be establishing consistency with an Illinois program that hasn't seen nearly enough in the past two decades. Although Illinois has reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-92, the team has too often been a tease, arguably never more so than this season when it started 6-0 and finished 0-6. The talent has been in Champaign, but Illinois has been too fragile of a team. Beckman must change the culture.
Some coaches create buzz just by showing up (see: Meyer, Urban). Others create it by what they do on the field.
Beckman must show he can do the latter at Illinois.
Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.
The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.
The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.
The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.
UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.
Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.
Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.
Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.
But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.
The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.
Former Illinois coach Ron Zook seemed to be a magnet for top-end recruits early in his seven-year tenure with the Illini.
He not only kept the state’s top talent at home, but he was also able to reach out and secure some of the top players from around the nation.
His 2006 recruiting class featured three ESPNU 150 players -- tight end Jeff Cumberland, who was from Ohio, and quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Chris James, who were both from Chicago. A year later, he had three more ESPNU 150 players in linebacker Martez Wilson from Chicago, wide receiver Arrelious Benn from Washington D.C. and D’Angelo McCray from Florida. In both years, he was also retaining most of the state’s premier recruits.
In 2008, nine of the state’s top 10-rated players, including both ESPNU 150 recruits, committed elsewhere. In 2009, Illinois missed on eight of the top 10 players, including three of the four ESPNU 150 recruits. In 2010 and 2011, Illinois missed on all four ESPNU 150 recruits and had just one commitment in each class’s top 10.
In 2012, Illinois doesn’t have a commitment from any of the state’s top-10 players and just one in the top 20. There are nine players in the top 20 who are committed to other Big Ten programs.
“He wasn’t getting the traditional Midwest big guys,” ESPN Midwest recruiting analyst Jared Shanker said of Zook. “He relied too heavily to his ties to the Southeast area to when he was recruiting Florida. He didn’t do enough to sell Illinois’ in-state guys.”
Restoring that in-state pipeline will have to be a priority for whomever is hired to be Zook’s replacement. The state may not produce the amount of talent that some places do, but Illinois has its share of quality players, and right now they’re winning at programs elsewhere in the country.
“He has to take the state back,” Shanker said.
Chicago area’s high school football coaches agreed. They’d like to see more of their players end up at Illinois rather than out of state.
“I’m not convinced Illinois is winning the state of Illinois in terms of getting their top recruits there,” said Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow, whose team won the Class 8A state championship this season. “All these programs, Georgia’s players are from Georgia, Florida kids are from Florida, Illinois kids are from all over the place. You got to get those boys to stay home.”
Bolingbrook’s top player, linebacker Antonio Morrison, was recruited by Illinois, but he opted for Florida for its warm weather and football tradition.
“The tradition was important no doubt about it,” Ivlow said. “You got to make bowl games. If you can make bowl games every year, people take notice. Illinois hasn’t been able to do that. They’re inconsistent. They’re up, they’re down, they’re down, they’re up.”
Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet also felt Illinois’ lack of success on the field has led to its lack of success off it. Since 2009, three of the state’s biggest recruits came from Hetlet’s program, and they also decided to commit out of state. Class of 2009 recruit Chris Watt ended up at Notre Dame, 2011 recruit Jordan Walsh chose Iowa, and 2012 recruit Tommy Schutt is committed to Penn State.
“I think winning begets winning,” Hetlet said. “They have to show they’re going to turn the program around and stay consistent to keep those guys in state.”
Hetlet and Simeon coach Dante Culbreath also thought the Illini’s coaching shake-ups in recent years affected recruiting. Hetlet felt Illinois missed the recruiting presence of Dan Disch, who is now at Southern Miss, and Culbreath believed the same about Reggie Mitchell, who is now at Kansas, and Mike Locksley, who was fired at New Mexico this season.
Zook was able to recruit former Simeon stars Wilson and Jack Ramsey to Illinois, but failed recently with the Wolverines’ marquee players. Class of 2011 offensive lineman Chris Bryant committed to Michigan last year. Class of 2012 quarterback Robert Gregory is committed to Arkansas, and ESPNU 150 offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is looking at other programs.
“I thought Coach Zook started off good, but in his defense he lost his recruiters in Locksley and Reggie Mitchell,” Culbreath said. “He brought in guys who didn’t know the city and the Public League or the surrounding cities. Whoever comes in, he has to get guys who know how to keep the city boys and Illinois boys in Illinois.
“That’s the reality of it. People want to say this and that. If you can’t get the kids out of your own home, most likely you won’t be as successful as you can be.”
Ron Zook needed to go. No one’s denying that.
But Zook’s time shouldn’t have run out on Sunday. It should have run out two years ago.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas’ move Sunday to fire Zook was like deciding to discard a carton milk that was well past its expiration date. Zook’s best days as Illinois’ coach had come and gone. Illinois’ epic collapse this season -- during which the Illini lost their final six games -- made it easier on Thomas in his first year on the job.
Firing Zook would have been the tougher but proper action following Illinois’ 2009 season. Former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther had the opportunity to do so, but he prolonged Zook’s tenure. Guenther left the decision up to Thomas when he retired prior to this school year.
In 2009, the program was two years beyond Zook’s greatest accomplishment -- the 2007 Rose Bowl season. The evidence was strong that the Illini hadn’t benefitted from their Rose Bowl appearance, and they weren’t about to either.
Illinois went 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten in 2008. A year later, the Illini were even worse, going 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten.
At that point, Zook had five seasons under his belt, the standard length of time a coach is given to prove himself these days. In five years, coaches have enough time to recruit their own players and fully implement their systems.
Zook had his five years, and there wasn’t many indications the program was succeeding or improving under him. Four of those campaigns ended with a losing record -- that Rose Bowl year being the lone exception. Illinois had gone 21-39 overall and 12-28 in the Big Ten during that period.
No one would have been surprised if 2009 was Zook’s final season. Plenty of athletic directors would have ended it then and looked for someone else to get the job done. It was certainly what a number of Illinois fans were after.
“There's a great deal of frustration obviously with the program at the moment," Guenther told reporters at the time. “We're still going to evaluate, but I think it's really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on a guy.”
Instead, Guenther retained Zook, fired the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators and went out and paid top dollar for two new coordinators. It was his way of hitting the reset button on Zook’s tenure.
Last season, Illinois again tasted moderate success. Having experienced three winning seasons since 2000, Illini fans were ecstatic about a somewhat positive year. The Illini went 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten and won the Texas Bowl against a Baylor team that struggled late in the season.
Still, the only way last season could have been deemed a true success if it was springboard for an even bigger 2011 season.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. After being set up with five homes games in their first six contests, in which they took care of business, they dropped their next six games. Illinois currently stands at 6-6 , hoping for a bowl invitation.
Which brings us to Sunday.
Although two years too late and under the wrong athletic director’s watch, Zook’s era was brought to a close, igniting some optimism in Champaign.
Thomas hired two successful football coaches -- Brian Kelly and Butch Jones -- during his time at Cincinnati. Thomas will now try to duplicate the feat and find himself a coach who can bring stability to an Illinois program that has never won bowl games in consecutive seasons.
Unlike his decision to let Zook go, this likely won’t be as easy.
Critics questioned Ron Zook’s coaching ability plenty throughout his tenure at Illinois, which ended Sunday, but few could knock his recruiting ability.
Even while the Illini were sliding the past few months, Zook was still making ground on the recruiting trail. He landed one highly-touted recruit as late as Thursday and received three commitments on one day just two weeks ago.
“He’s always been able to get top guys to commit,” ESPN Midwest recruiting coordinator Jared Shanker said.
Zook’s 2012 recruiting class was shaping up to be another solid one. With his firing on Sunday, there will be questions whether everyone, especially his Florida recruits, will stay loyal to their commitments.
Florida has been a hot spot for Zook since he took over at Illinois in 2005. He’s had at least one Florida recruit in every class and had a total 21 Florida recruits from 2008-2011.
His 2012 class again included Florida players. Five Florida players are currently committed to the Illini. His two highest-ranked recruits -- linebackers Keith Brown and Tajarvis Fuller -- are from the Sunshine State, and running back Dami Ayoola, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., committed to the Illini on Thursday.
Brown, the class’s top-ranked player, declined to comment on Sunday.
“I think definitely the guys from the South are the ones who you’ll see most likely de-commit or at least look at other options,” Shanker said. “Zook was the reason the Southeast guys, especially Florida, were looking at Illinois. With him no longer around, there’s no connection to Florida.”
Illinois has a better shot at retaining its Midwest recruits. Six of the Illini’s 14 commitments are from that region.
Fresh off a state championship victory in Champaign on Saturday night, Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow believed Zook’s departure wouldn’t affect Bain’s commitment.
“Robbie wants to play in the Big Ten,” Ivlow said. “As long as the new regime honors his scholarship, he’s there 100 percent. You don’t fall in love with the coaches. That’s the first mistake in recruiting. There’s a good chance they won’t be there in 4-5 years anyway.”
Class of 2012 recruit Ryan Frain, a kicker from Indianapolis, also said Sunday he was firm in his commitment to the Illini.
“It was pretty disappointing,” Frain said of Zook’s firing. “It doesn’t affect my commitment. I’m just as committed as I was yesterday. I don’t think anyone, especially myself, picked Illinois just because of coach Zook. I thought he was a great guy.
“The people who are committed I think will stay committed. I hope that’s the truth. I hope nobody backs out.”
Illinois has done the expected by firing Ron Zook after a historic collapse this season. The next step will be the hard one for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.
Zook finishes his Illini career at 34-51, though there were some successes. He led the program to the 2008 Rose Bowl, where it was blown out by USC. Illinois is bowl eligible at 6-6 this season, and if the team is selected for the postseason, that would mark the first back-to-back bowl years since 1991-92.
But Zook also had four losing seasons out of seven and was nearly fired in 2009. Instead, he was allowed to return with two new coordinators -- Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense. That worked for a 7-6 record and Texas Bowl win over Baylor last year, and the Illini started this year 6-0 and ranked in the top 20.
That only set the stage, however, for an palindromic 0-6 finish in which the team often looked lost on offense and special teams, the latter of which was supposed to be Zook's area of expertise. The season ended with a 27-7 loss to Legends Division cellar-dweller Minnesota in which Illinois mustered only one first down in the entire first half.
“I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."
A change was necessary, since Zook had never shown the ability to consistently compete at a high level, either in Champaign or at his previous head-coaching stop at Florida. His job status was hovering over the program and fans had long since lost faith in his ability to get the job done. It's better to do this now and get started on the coaching search. Koenning will serve as interim coach now and through a possible bowl game, and the players will somehow have to regroup after the deflating losing streak and this transition.
Meanwhile, Thomas now is under the gun to bring a winner to Illinois. And that earlier stat about the back-to-back bowl appearances illustrates just how hard it's been for anyone to consistently deliver. Thomas has already hired one big-time winner, bringing Brian Kelly aboard at Cincinnati and seeing that team make consecutive BCS bowl appearances. He hired Butch Jones to succeed Kelly, and Jones has the Bearcats on the verge of a Big East championship this year in his second season.
Thomas will try to do the same with the Illini, who don't have it easy in trying to battle Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The program got as far as it was going to go under Zook. Can Thomas find somebody to take it farther?
What if I had told you on Oct. 8, when Illinois was 6-0 and ranked in Top 20 and Minnesota was 1-5 with losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State, that both teams would finish with the same number of Big Ten victories? Or that the Gophers would actually end the year feeling a whole lot better about themselves than the Illini?
You probably would have laughed me out of the room. But that's just what happened, thanks to a historically bad collapse by Illinois and a nice recovery by Minnesota.
Let's talk about the Gophers first, because they're the ones who showed up for this game and played like a competent team. Nothing came easy for them in this 3-9 season, but their improvement down the stretch was obvious. Jerry Kill has begun to build a foundation, and with quarterback MarQueis Gray continuing to develop, he's got an anchor to work with. Gray ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns and threw for a score on Saturday. It was nice to see the Minnesota players have some fun on the sidelines after all they've been through this year. They will now go into the offseason with some positive feelings.
As for Illinois? Well, maybe Ron Zook should have kept on walking when he stormed out of his news conference a couple of weeks ago. I can't imagine what Zook can say to new athletic director Mike Thomas now when he makes the case to keep his job.
The Illini are bowl eligible, but what game would want them at this point? Bowls like teams with momentum, and they've got all the wrong momentum with a six-game losing streak. Add in all-but-certain lame-duck coach, and there's little reason for Illinois fans to get excited about traveling to watch this team play again, especially during basketball season.
After compiling only 19 yards and one first down in the first half, the Illini got a little better in the second half on offense, only because it was impossible to do worse. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase played only a couple of snaps after being pulled in the second quarter, and Reilly O'Toole led the team on its only scoring drive.
But Illinois still managed just 168 total yards against one of the league's worst defenses; the offense completely floundered during the six-game skid, and Scheelhaase regressed after a promising first year and a half on the job. The biggest culprit, though, was an offensive line that suddenly stopped blocking anybody.
The Illini have a lot of questions to answer, and I wouldn't be stunned if they got left out of the bowl picture even if there are open slots. The players certainly can't be excited about bowl practice, and it may be time to get started on a new direction with this program.
After an uninspired first half that featured just 99 yards, the Badgers came alive and blitzed a mistake-prone Illinois team in the final 30 minutes. Wisconsin's 28-17 win means the Leaders title will be decided next week when it hosts Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State and Purdue are eliminated from the race.
Ball continued his assault on the record books with 38 carries for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He added a 5-yard reception to cap an insanely difficult 12 play, 30-yard drive. The junior had 77 rushing yards in a huge third quarter and added a 17-yard touchdown run early in the fourth as Wisconsin's offense caught fire.
Ball now has 30 touchdowns on the season, becoming just the fifth player in NCAA history to reach the mark. Right now, he's the best offensive player in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Heisman, anyone? He should at least be in the mix.
It wasn't a typical performance for Wisconsin's offense or senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who had just 90 pass yards, but the Badgers will take the win and move on.
Illinois became Illinois in the second half as mistakes once again piled up for Ron Zook's team. The Illini survived their lone miscue in the first half, a fumbled snap on a punt, but they imploded in the second half. Illinois committed turnovers on three of its first four possessions and went three-and-out on the other. Wisconsin defensive backs Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry picked off Reilly O'Toole, who surprisingly got more playing time than Nathan Scheelhaase after the break. Scheelhaase, by the way, threw a late interception to end Illinois' comeback hopes. Illinois still had a scoreless half, but this time it was the second, not the first. Ugh.
The Illini dropped their fifth consecutive game after their best start (6-0) since 1951. Whether Zook needed a win today to keep his job remains to be seen, but he can't be feeling too comfortable going into the final week of the regular season.
This would have been a devastating loss for Wisconsin, which hasn't looked the same away from Madison. Now the Badgers have a chance to win the division on their home field, although they'll need a more polished performance against Penn State's defense.