By Shawn Muller–
The happiest man in Chicago this past Saturday had to be The University of Illinois Head Football Coach Ron Zook. Could you blame him? His Fighting Illini team became bowl eligible for the first time since the magical run to The Rose Bowl in 2007. Illinois walloped the rival Northwestern Wildcats 48-27 in a one-sided affair (pun intended) on the record-breaking shoulders of star running back Mikel Leshoure. Leshoure’s 330 yards rushing set the individual rushing record in a game played at Wrigley Field, and marked the highest individual rushing output on the season (Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr. had 307 against Missouri). What a day to be an Illini. Ron Zook had to be grinning from ear-to-ear on the trip back to Urbana-Champaign. Maybe now Coach Zook can take big a sigh of relief when thinking of his job security….Well….for now anyway.
Coaching football at the FBS level, and particularly in a conference such as the Big Ten, is not a job for the weak and weary. Remember, Division I football is big business. Coaches need to keep an updated copy of their resume on file at all times, because winning and winning BIG is the only way to last in such a cut-throat environment. Recruiting talent, reaching bowl games, building a winning tradition, and bringing in the big bucks are all that matter in the high stakes game of coaching football at the FBS level. These days, it seems that once a coach is hired, he is already fired. It is just a matter of when. Fortunately for Zook, when may have been extended for a little while longer.
Perhaps no other coach in the country (outside of Rich Rodriguez in Ann Arbor anyway) has been under a bigger microscope over the past few years than University of Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook. Illinois had been at or near the bottom of the Big Ten since reaching the Sugar Bowl under Ron Turner in 2001, compiling an overall record of 9-26 between the 2002-2004 seasons. When The Illini finally parted ways with Ron Turner after the 2004 season, they needed to make a splash on the national scene. At the time, Ron Zook was one of the “sexy” names on the open market after being let go by the University of Florida after three seasons in Gainesville. Illinois Director of Athletics, Ron Guenther, wasted no time in naming Zook as the man responsible for turning the football program around. There was a lot of work to be done, but the Zook hire looked like a home run as he lead Illinois to The Rose Bowl ( the school’s first since 1983) after just two years as the head man in charge. Zook, who is known as a tireless recruiter, was beginning to bring in top notch talent, the facilities were being upgraded, and a sleeping giant in the college football ranks looked to be slowly rising from its slumber. Or so it seemed.
After a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2008, and a lowly 3-9 record last season, Ron Zook’s seat was beginning to feel quite warm to say the least. Many people were beginning to think that this 2010 season may become Zook’s last at Illinois if the downward spiral continued. The hiring of Paul Petrino as the Offensive Coordinator, and Vic Koenning as Defensive Coordinator, this past off-season, may have been Zook’s biggest “recruiting” wins during his tenure at Illinois. You can bring in the most talented recruits in the country, but if you don’t have the coaching staff to coach the kids up, well, all you have is a talented team on paper. The “Jimmy’s and the Joe’s” are obviously important, but you need coaches who know “the X’s and the O’s”. I believe Petrino and Koenning know “the X’s and the O’s”. Stability and continuity in the coaching staff can make or break a program. If you have a coaching staff in constant turmoil, and schemes changing from year to year, comfort and routine cannot be established. If Illinois is able to keep Petrino and Koenning around for the next couple of seasons, there is no reason to believe Illinois cannot continue to win on a consistent basis.
With the conference season all wrapped up for the Illini (6-5 overall & 4-4 in The Big Ten), the “Fightin’ Zookers” still have a lot to play for next week when they travel to Fresno State to face the Bulldogs. Not only are the Illini looking for payback against a Bulldog team that beat them on a fluke 2-pt conversion to pull out a 52-51 victory last year at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, but the Illini is also trying to win 7 or more games for just the fourth time since the 1999 season, when they finished with an 8-4 record and a victory over Virginia in the MicronPC.com Bowl (currently the Champs Sports Bowl). With a star in the making at quarterback in Freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, and in my eyes, the most underrated player in the Big Ten (and possibly the country) in junior running back Mikel Leshoure, to go along with a solid group of athletes on both sides of the ball, The Fighting Illini have a chance to ride this wave of momentum into the bowl game and possibly the 2011 season and beyond. Yeah…I am pretty sure Ron Zook is still smiling back at the University of Illinois campus. Who knows, Zook may have the pieces in place to keep that smile on his face for seasons to come while roaming the Illinois sidelines. The sleeping giant that is Illinois football may just rise from that slumber after all….
Shawn Muller has lived in Chicago for 7 years. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and just recently received his certificate in radio broadcasting in October of 2010. Sports have always been a passion of Shawn’s. In his free time, Shawn enjoys spending time with his wife Melissa and 3 year old daughter Ava, catching any live sporting event, and traveling. Check out his radio show, “Grab Some Bench with Muller and Bangser” at www.blogtalkradio.com/spmuller24.