Wisch: Illinois AD Clocks Out, Leaves Weber, Zook Ticking

By Dave Wischnowsky–

(CBS) The University of Illinois is on the clock.

But it’s Bruce Weber and Ron Zook who can hear theirs ticking.

At about 5 p.m. this evening – or whatever time it is that Ron Guenther boxes up his Illini coffee mug and leaves his office for good – Illinois will be without an official athletic director for the first time since 1992, when football coach-slash-AD John Mackovic decided to go off and mess with Texas.

Yes, it’s been a long time.

Guenther, the dean of Big Ten ADs – and the scourge of many frustrated Illini fans, who blame him for allowing the football program to underachieve and the basketball program to falter under his watch – retires today. On his way out the door, Guenther will hand his reins, on an interim basis, to senior associate athletic director Terry Cole, who himself will be retiring on Aug. 15.

So, at some point this summer – once the school hires a chancellor first – Illinois will have a new AD permanently seated inside the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building in Champaign.

And Weber and Zook sitting uncomfortably on the hot seat.

Ever since Guenther announced his retirement six weeks ago, I’ve had orange-and-blue-blooded friends asking me how I thought his departure would affect the Illini football and basketball programs.

I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about it, and here’s what I’ve determined will be the likely impact of Guenther’s retirement on Illinois pigskin and hoops:

Absolutely huge.

Or incredibly minimal.

Not satisfied with that answer? Well, sorry, but the truth is that, right now, the futures of Illinois football coach Ron Zook and basketball coach Bruce Weber have nothing to do with the next AD. Rather, they have everything to do with Ron Zook and Bruce Weber themselves.

The 2011-12 school year in Champaign is shaping up to be one of the more interesting in recent memory as both coaches of the school’s glamor sports will essentially be conducting a season-long tryout under what will be an incredibly watchful (and, likely, highly critical) eye of a new AD.

If they win, they’re (likely) still in. But if they don’t, well…

On Wednesday, the Sporting News unveiled its “Preseason Top 120” for the college football season and slotted Illinois in at an unfavorable No. 59, putting Zook’s squad behind every Big Ten team except Minnesota and Indiana. Earlier this month, Lindy’s Magazine also projected Illinois for 10th place in the conference.

Considering that Illinois boasts a whopping eight home games this season and returns standout sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as well as crack coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, I find a 10th-place prediction to be startlingly low – even with the early departures of Mikel LeShoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson to the NFL.

To be certain, Illinois fans’ expectations far exceed those of the college football pubs. So, if Zook’s team does finish 10th and somehow misses a bowl game for the fifth time in seven years, he will (and should) be sent packing. However, if the Illini fare well this fall – I’ll personally find anything less than 8-4 a disappointment – Zook will almost certainly be back for 2012, perhaps even with a multi-year contract extension.

Meanwhile, over at Assembly Hall, Weber is in a similar situation. This past spring, the embattled basketball coach finally got the March Madness monkey off his back, winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since Dee Brown and James Augustine were seniors in 2006. However, a 2010-11 basketball campaign that started with a slew of seniors and Final Four aspirations still ended up as a major flop.

This coming season, Illinois adds seven newcomers, including six freshmen, to a team that will feature just a single senior (Bradley point guard transfer Sam Maniscalco) and no proven big men.

Maligned for years for his inability to recruit, Weber has brought in three consecutive highly touted classes and one could argue he deserves the chance to fully develop them (I probably would). However, if Illinois again fails to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2012 – it would be the third time in five years – one could also argue that he should be dismissed (I’d probably understand).

The Illini basketball season looks like one that might require patience. However, in Champaign, that commodity has just about run out. And it’s unlikely that a new athletic director, surely itching to stamp his mark on a program, will arrive with much of it.

But, nevertheless, once an AD is named, there’s only one game that he’ll be able to play this year.

The waiting one.

Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.

davewisch Wisch: Illinois AD Clocks Out, Leaves Weber, Zook Ticking

Dave Wischnowsky

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. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Bruce and Ron are “singing for their supper”…their teams better perform well, or the new AD will bring in his guys to coach.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Also, kudos to you Dave for being way out in front of the sad Jereme Richmond story.

  • Dave Wischnowsky

    Sorry to say that I saw that one coming a mile away.

  • Mark, Sterling

    I missed the Jereme Richmond “story”, is it on this site?

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Hey, Mark. Back in April, I wrote a blog for CBS entitled “The Curious Case of Jereme Richmond.”

      The link to it is here: http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/04/12/wisch-the-curious-case-of-jereme-richmond/

      After writing that blog, I actually was contacted by an NBA scout regarding Richmond. He told me at the time that he was certain that some team would take Jereme in the first round. I just didn’t believe that at all. Turned out, I had good reason not to.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        Sadly, Richmond was the archetypal 3rd Round Draft Choice.

      • Mark, Sterling

        Thanks Dave, Well done too! I never knew much about Richmond before he got to Illinois, but like you said, he just seemed…off. I would say I feel sorry for the kid, but he did all this to himself. He obviously wasn’t getting much help from the people who were supposed to be mentoring him and helping him mature. Strange situation for sure.


    Zook is coming into this season with a bowl win over a Big 12 team. Even if it was Baylor, there was no expectation for a win, and he put an exclamation point on it. Other, better, teams, got crammed into their lockers on the 31st and 1st.
    I don’t expect a total collapse this year. 3 wins or less might require a catapulting (or a massive scandal).

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      A 7-6 season certainly looks a lot better coming off of than a 6-7 season, that’s for sure. 2010 was a nice year for the Illini football program, considering it had won only four games in 2009 and especially with the Texas Bowl victory.

      That said, the Illini really should have had at least two more wins last year — the Minnesota and Fresno State losses were inexcusable (the Michigan loss almost was). And Zook did not appear to have the team properly prepared.

      With the favorable schedule that Illinois has this season — eight home games, including the first five weeks of the season — if Zook doesn’t go at least 6-6 there is absolutely no excuse to keep him around another season. And, to be clear, 6-6 would be a disastrous season for this year’s Illini.

      I think the most interesting part of this year could be, what does the new AD do if Illinois has a strong season and other schools start offering offensive coordinator Paul Petrino a head job after it? Can you really justify keeping Zook and letting Petrino walk if it looks as if Petrino was the true cause for the Illini’s turnaround? But, on the flip side, can you actually fire a head coach after a successful season?

      We need to see what plays out, but the new Illinois AD could have a very, very interesting decision on his hands at the end of this season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach fired after a strong year in order to promote his OC to the head job. But if you’re a new AD looking to make a splash at Illinois, that would certainly be a cannonball.

      • SPAULDING!

        Yeah. Those back-to-back Fresno State drops don’t look good.
        I forgot about the other fourth quarter losses.

        For some reason, Northwestern has been able to recruit.

  • John

    Weber should have been canned long ago!!!!It’s a joke and a travesty that he’s anywhere near that hoops program

  • dhaab

    Honestly, I cannot fathom how any fan with a shred of common sense would believe that last years Illini basketball team had “final 4 aspirations”. They did have 4 returning seniors, BUT all of those players had HUGE question marks in their overall skills and none of them were on-the-court leaders. Obviously having nobody selected in the NBA draft showed how limited those players truly were.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Weber handed out “Final Four Houston” T-shirts to the players before the season. It wasn’t just the fans that had such lofty aspirations, the team did, too. Clearly, they were very far off base. But most people weren’t thinking that way when the season got underway.

  • Bruce Weber

    “Who Cares?”

  • Dallon Christensen

    I do not believe a 10th place finish for Illinois in Big Ten football this year at all. Yes, they lose three awfully good players, but they may have the best QB returning and still have a lot of talent returning.

  • Confused

    Did you call Nathan Scheelhaase a standout quarterback? Yikes.

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