Ron Zook era at an end: The good and the bad
I had a bit of a conversation with my dad about this last night, as the final minutes of Illinois' loss to Minnesota ticked away. I told him that if Zook's fate wasn't certain before a twenty point loss to the conference basement Gophers, it was set in stone now. He asked me if getting rid of Ron Zook after taking the Illini to two straight six win seasons was a good idea, considering how few bowls we have had over the past 20 years. He asked me if the Illinois program could really do better than Zook, who recruited well above his win loss record, and who had at least brought the Illini back to relevance.
He asked me if there was NFL talent on this team, I said that there was. He asked me if Zook had routinely put players into the league, and if there was a bigger presence of Illini in the pros than there was ten years ago. In this regard, I had to admit he was right, from Jon Asamoah to Martez Wilson, the Illini are as visible as they ever have been on Sundays.
Has the Ron Zook experience at Illinois been all bad? Of course not. Is it the right decision to move on now, yes.
The most fun football season I have ever experienced is the 2007 Rose Bowl year. Vontae Davis picking off Tyler Donovan at Memorial Stadium, seeing the players storm the student section after they beat Penn State (because we couldn't storm the field) and visiting Columbus Ohio to see Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall bleed out the No. 1 team in the nation.
Yeah, we got crushed by USC in the Rose Bowl. But the lopsided loss to the Trojans was at least softened by the feeling that Illinois was on its upswing, with a great future ahead.
Not making a bowl in 2008 was a kick in the gut for that. We were reminded that things aren't that easy. We didn't make a bowl, and we seemed to spiral downward back towards obscurity from there.
My dad was absolutely right, Zook and company managed to pull some great recruiting gets over the years, Mikel Leshoure and Rejus Benn not the least of them. But personnel never seemed to be stable. We had to wait three years to see Rashard Mendenhall as the feature back? And another three years for Mikel Leshoure?
The team had three offensive coordinators over the last seven years, but none who seemed to have full control over which players got playing time (Petrino included.)
On defense, there was even less consistently, as one coordinator left, replaced by two co-coordinators and Zook himself, until Vic Koenning came to Illinois and seemed to get the unit figured out.
The team never found the consistency that a stable program needs. Every team can have down years, but Illinois has fallen into multiple near winless black holes over the last 10 years.
The fact is, we never knew how good Illinois would be at the beginning of each season. When NFL attrition hit the Illini, there was never a clear sign that the team was reloading or heading into a valley.
The program needs a jump start. It needs fresh blood, and fans in general are tired of the level of uncertainty that has surrounded the team for four years now. Winning always seems to be a surprise, and there seemed to be no team that Illinois could not lose to. The good was always seemingly balanced by lots of bad.
We will see just how prominent and enticing the Illinois job may be in the next few days.
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