Illini Football 2010: How did we get here?
I have been asked by countless fans of other teams the same questions all this past year "How did Zook manage to keep his job after last year?" and "What record does Zook need to have to keep his job?" Think of this post as an answer to that question as well as a primer to the story lines that might be popping up this fall. As we approach Big Ten Media Days (where I'll be on Monday....huzah!) it is going to be interesting to see just how the Illini coaches are getting along since January.
The coaching situation at Illinois is as interesting as there can be for team that has only made 1 bowl in the last 5 years. Halfway through the season last year, in the middle of an epic conference losing streak, the AD Ron Guenther declared that no matter the record that season, Ron Zook would return to coach in 2010. I have no idea why Guenther felt it was right to say so at that time, but it was pretty clear that it was not only the performance of the team that was affecting the decision to retain Zook for the next year. There was no way that given the other events surrounding the University that the amount of money required to buy out Zook's contract could be justified.
You might also remember that we have a famous former governor that was a bit loose with the rules, (I think he was fired from the Apprentice too) but a scandal connected to him resulted in the entire board of trustees, President and Chancellor being replaced. Given that they were only installed very recently it seems pretty unlikely that this new board or President would approve the funding for a coaching change. Unlike largely privately funded institutions like Notre Dame or huge football programs like Ohio State, there is not a terribly active and generous Alumni base from which to draw for a buyout in the style of Charlie Weiss. That means that everyone would have to live with the Zook contract as long as the budget looks like it does.
That said, the disappointment that was last season was real, and something had to be done, thus the almost wholesale housecleaning of the coaching assistants. The Mike Schultz experiment was over, as was Zook's de facto control of the defense. Thus the acquisition of Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning for a great deal more than would be normally paid to coordinators, but for a much cheaper price than hiring a new head coach.
It may very well be that the decision to keep Zook was one that was made independent of the budget situation, but the assistants that were hired suggest that Guenther wanted to take the program in a new direction. With Petrino, the Illini abandoned the offense that had been a staple since Zook arrived in Champaign, and with Koenning, the defense is now no longer solely Zook's. We may not have removed Zook from the helm, but the changes were no less seismic.
So this is where we are. A virtually entirely new staff, a new offense, a tough schedule, and no apparent connection between on field performance and the head coach keeping his job. This should not come across as a complaint piece against Zook or the administration, there were very few other options this last off season, and overall I think they improved the team by making those changes.
I really want the Petrino offense to be successful, and I think the personnel at RB are really good for the Pro-style offense. Even more I really want this team to win, go back to a bowl, and make all of this speculation unnecessary. I am rooting very hard for Zook and the coaching staff to succeed and sell out Memorial Stadium. I like winning, I like my Alma Mater having a vibrant football program, I like Saturdays in Champaign to be filled with happy people, and frankly I don't care how we get there or with what offense or under what coach. What worries me, and I am sure this bothers others as well, is that if this season is not a success, and recruiting goes about as well as it did last year, that the same financial woes of last year will prevent the administration from possibly making a change that would be necessary to keep the program from falling off another cliff.
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