By Dave Wischnowsky–
As a University of Illinois season ticket holder, I’ve watched a lot of Ron Zook football during the past six years.
Most of it bad.
And as a 2010 Texas Bowl ticket holder, I’ll watch some more Ron Zook football at Reliant Stadium in Houston this evening.
Hopefully, not bad.
At 5 p.m. inside the House the Houston Texans Built, the 6-6 Fighting Illini (losers of 3 of the last 4 games) will face the 7-5 Baylor Bears (losers of their last three) in an ESPN-televised bowl showdown that might have a lot to do with the job security of Illinois’ head football coach.
Or it might have nothing to do with it at all.
As Illini fans know all too well, with one game remaining in his sixth football campaign in Champaign, Zook has a record of 27-45 (for a winning percentage of .NotGood). And if the Illini lose to Baylor (the Bears are a 1-point favorite), Zook will have recorded his fifth losing season out of six.
It’s pretty safe to say that there aren’t many major college football programs in America that would put up with that.
In fact, I’d argue there aren’t any at all.
So, if it wants to be a major college football program, will Illinois?
Now, the hope here is that the Illini show up at Reliant Stadium and blow the doors off Baylor (or just win a close one), making any concerns about Zook’s 2011 job status moot.
And if Illinois performs tonight the way it was during midseason this year that certainly could happen. But it’s also possible that Baylor – featuring a speed-laden roster and playing a home-state game with as many as 60,000 Bears fans expected to be in attendance – will blow the Illini away instead.
And if Illinois does lose badly to Baylor, where does that leave Zook and the Illini program? That’s a question that’s on the minds of many Illini fans frustrated with a football program that has been inexplicably inconsistent for the better part of two decades.
Smart money says that Zook – who has three years remaining on his contract – will be back for 2011, regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game.
But is that smart?
When Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther opted to retain Zook after last year’s 3-9 debacle and instead sign a pair of new expensive coordinators (Paul Petrino on offense and Vic Koenning on defense) to two-year deals, it was clear that he intended to give his head coach a two-season window to right the ship.
Halfway through that window, the ship at Illinois is afloat again, but it’s still listing. With some savvier head coaching decisions, the Illini likely could be a stellar 9-3 right now, rather than a mediocre 6-6.
Today in a Q&A with the Champaign News-Gazette, Zook provided his explanation for Illinois’ inability to win close games this season: “We lost a couple of games this year that maybe we were worried about the wrong thing. If you were worried about just playing, maybe the wins and losses are going to take care of themselves.”
There are a lot of “maybes” and uncertainty in that statement, which often seems to be the case when Zook tries to diagnose what went wrong following a loss. While I like Ron Zook as a person and think he works hard, he’s proven himself to not be one of the more cerebral coaches in the game. And I do wonder if perhaps Petrino – who has impressed during his first season running the offense and has head coaching bloodlines – couldn’t be.
When asked by the News-Gazette what needs to happen for the Illinois program to get to a 9-3 record or beyond, Zook said: “We’re not very far away. We were in every game. A call here, a missed tackle here and we win. The thing we’ve got to do is continue to get better, continue to grind and push ourselves over the hump.”
Zook is right. The Illini don’t look that far away. But after six years, we know Ron Zook, and is he the right coach to get them there?
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.