By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) I didn’t watch the Illinois football game last weekend.
Turns out, though, I wasn’t the only one.
Because, apparently, Ron Zook didn’t see much of it, either.
This past Saturday afternoon while the head coach of the unbeaten Illini was forgetting the score of his own game in Bloomington, Ind., I was 830 miles due south tailgating in Baton Rouge prior to Florida vs. LSU.
And in between sips of Abita and bites of grilled gator sausage, I asked a fan of the top-ranked Tigers what he thought of Zook, the onetime Florida coach and longtime SEC punchline.
The Cajun didn’t give me an answer.
Instead, he just looked at me, chuckled and then shook his head.
Heck, imagine if I’d asked a Florida fan for his opinion.
Now, look, I like Ron Zook as a person. He’s a gregarious guy and a truly hard worker. And with 16th-ranked Illinois gunning for a 7-0 start this afternoon when it hosts Ohio State (2:30 p.m., ABC), I’m plenty impressed with his team this season, too.
But, as I have been for years, I’m also enormously concerned about his ability to manage football games, nevermind an entire major-college program that’s chugging towards a Top 10 ranking.
And after Zook’s latest clueless caper, aren’t you, too?
As you’ve probably heard, last Saturday against Indiana the Illini curiously opted to go for a two-point conversion midway through the second quarter after they had just taken a 20-13 lead.
The conversion pass failed, leaving the Hoosiers within seven points of the lead. After Illinois’ next TD, Zook then opted to kick the extra point to go up 14. But had he merely kicked the PAT twice, Illinois would have been up 28-13 – putting IU three scores behind.
The decision – like many during Zook’s tenure – didn’t make a lick of sense. And in the postgame press conference, despite the win, Zook was at a total loss as he stammered, “We were down five, right? Up five, I mean. It was 20-13? Up seven?”
“Maybe I didn’t know what the score was,” Zook finally admitted, quite astonishingly (although not at all surprisingly). “That’s happened to me before. It’s usually when we’re behind. [This will] give you something to pound us about.”
Yes, Ron. Yes, it will. In fact, it provided enough ammo that ESPN’s Pat Forde this week rated college football coaches on a “Zooker Goofball Scale” in his online column.
That’s not exactly what you want your school’s football coach known for (and don’t think new Illinois AD Mike Thomas hasn’t noticed). But as bad as it is that Zook didn’t know the score of his own ballgame – hey, what are scoreboards for, anyway? – do you want to know what’s even worse?
This was actually the second consecutive week that it happened to the Zooker.
It was far less reported than Zook’s IU gaffe, but after Illinois’ thrilling 38-35 come-from-behind victory over Northwestern two weeks ago, Champaign News-Gazette reporter Marcus Jackson wrote in his post-game roundup: “I’m going to pick on Zook for a minute. Not for anything he did on the field, but for a comment he made after the game.”
While describing Illinois’ game-winning drive during the postgame presser, Zook said: “I told (offensive coordinator) Paul (Petrino) that we were gonna get it in (the end zone). We weren’t gonna kick a field goal there at the end.”
Jackson added in his column, “Um, if my memory is correct, the Illini were down by four in the final minute. According to my calculations, a field goal – worth three points – would have done the Illini no good. It’s a good thing he made up his mind they weren’t going to go for the field goal there. Otherwise, there would have been some unhappy folks wearing orange at Memorial Stadium.”
With Illinois unbeaten and boasting two of the best coordinators in the business with Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, there aren’t a whole lot of unhappy folks at Memorial Stadium these days.
But with Zook still calling the shots on crucial decisions such as extra-point attempts and clock management, I can tell you that there are still a lot of concerned ones.
Unfortunately, for very good reason.
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. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.