Friday, December 30, 2011
Ron Zook: Illini assistants won't boycott
By Gene Wojciechowski
A threatened boycott by as many as four Illinois assistant coaches for Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl will remain exactly that: a threat.
According to former Illinois coach Ron Zook, who spoke with several of the assistants Friday morning and later Friday night, there will be no boycott over a contract dispute with the school. Zook, who was dismissed in late November, said he was assured by his former assistants that the entire staff would participate in the bowl game against UCLA.
"They're going to coach," said Zook, when contacted by ESPN.com Friday evening. "They're [the assistants] frustrated. But they're going to coach. They know it's about the kids. But they were trying to make a point. They've got careers, family, all of those things. They're class guys. And it's important that everyone knows they're really good people."
The dispute centers around a contract promise that Zook said was made to several of his assistant coaches by him and former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther. According to Zook, the assistants -- Jeff Brohm, Ron West and Chip Long -- were told they would receive two-year deals which would run through the 2012 regular season. Assistant Joe Gilbert has told SI.com that he also was promised a multiyear contract.
"Somewhere -- I'm not sure how -- a couple of the contracts got changed," said Zook. "I truly believed they had two-year contracts. ... I'm not exactly sure how things got changed. I feel awful about it. They're great people and they did a great job. I don't know where it went wrong. I was under the understanding that they had two-year contracts."
Angry about the situation and the lack of dialogue with new AD Mike Thomas, the assistant coaches spoke openly about boycotting the Illini's bowl game. But Zook said it was an understandable emotional response and that the assistants quickly realized it would be unfair to the Illinois players.
"They're good coaches," said Zook. "I want them to win the ballgame. The kids deserve it. The University of Illinois deserves it."
Thomas told SI.com that the boycott threat was "news to me." He added: "We have a contract that's pretty clear and we intend to honor that contract. We assume they'll honor it as well."
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior national columnist for ESPN.com and a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.