CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Seven years of tantalizing potential that often lead to frustrating results at Illinois ended Sunday when the school fired coach Ron Zook following his team’s historic late-season collapse.
Illinois started the season 6-0 but finished with a six-game losing streak, finishing with a 27-7 defeat at Minnesota on Saturday.
According to STATS, LLC, the Illini are the first FBS team to open the regular-season with six straight wins, and close it with six losses in a row.
Zook took the Illini to their first Rose Bowl since the 1980s and last season led the team to its first bowl win in more than a decade. The strong start this season had fans thinking they could contend in the Big Ten, and the Illini could still go to a bowl game. The program has had back-to-back bowl appearances since 1991 and ’92.
But Zook also had five losing seasons in Illinois — finishing with a 34-51 record — and leaves the Illini in a year in which their only Big Ten wins were against Northwestern and Indiana.
Athletic Director Mike Thomas said Zook left Illinois football better than he found it. But Illinois, Thomas said, needs a new leader who can build a team more suited to competing in the Big Ten.
“To me, really, you have to have success within your own conference,” Thomas told reporters. “The last seven years we won roughly 32 percent of our Big Ten games,” adding that Illinois had a winning record against only Indiana over that period.
Thomas said he met with Zook Sunday morning and informed the coach of his decision.
At his own news conference, Zook didn’t take questions, but thanked a room packed with players, family and friends for what he called seven special seasons. Occasionally stopping to gather himself.
“I think our program is very close; I really do,” the 57-year-old Zook said. “We just didn’t finish a few games here and there.”
Most of the roughly two-dozen players gathered at Zook’s news conference declined questions, but senior linebacker Trulon Henry said the team believed it let Zook down through the losing streak.
“I’d jump off a cliff for him,” said Henry, who Zook recruited to Illinois after Henry served time in prison for an armed robbery but will graduate at the end of the current semester. “A lot of coaches wouldn’t have brought me here.”
With two years left on his contract, Zook will receive a $2.6 million buyout.
Thomas said a search will start right away to find a successor, though he wouldn’t discuss potential candidates. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will be interim head coach, the first-year athletic director said.
Zook came to Illinois in 2005 after being fired in his third season at Florida. He replaced Ron Turner, now an Indianapolis Colts assistant coach.
The 2007 season was Zook’s high point at Illinois. The Illini were Big Ten runners-up and upset an undefeated Ohio State team in Columbus that was shooting for a perfect season and a national title.
But only two of Zook’s Illinois teams finished with winning records, 2007’s 9-4 squad and last year’s 7-6 Texas Bowl team.
Thomas praised Zook for the elevating Illinois, which had four losing season in five years before he arrived. But Thomas, who became AD last summer, also alluded to Zook’s uneven tenure at Illinois.
“It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn’t here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it’s clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited.”
Zook went 2-9 in his first season at Illinois but Illini fans had the promise of better times ahead. Known as an extraordinary recruiter, Zook’s first signing class included highly regarded Chicago quarterback Juice Williams, who started most of the next four seasons.
After another two-win year — Williams’ freshman season — Zook and the Illini delivered on that promise with the trip to the Rose Bowl. Illinois was blown out in Pasadena, 49-17 by USC, but fans thought good times were on the horizon.
Illinois followed up that surprisingly good season, though, with two bad ones, going 5-7 and 3-9.
Zook kept his job amid speculation that he wouldn’t, but was forced to fire virtually his entire staff and hire offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and Koenning. With their help Illinois went 7-6 in 2010.
This season, though, left fans with even deeper doubts.
Illinois took advantage of an early schedule that included five home dates and opponents such as Arkansas State and South Dakota State to roll to 6-0. Then came the losses.
While the defense mostly held up well this season the offense struggled. Illinois at one point went three games without scoring a first-half point. The Illini averaged 11 points a game through the losing streak after putting up almost 35 a game through their unbeaten start.
And Illinois’ special teams — a point of emphasis for Zook, who has been an NFL special teams coach — were often bad. The Illini were last in the Big Ten this season in both kickoff and punt returns and near the bottom of the conference in both kickoff and punt coverage.
Zook brought both that NFL pedigree and the reputation as a tireless worker and recruiter to Illinois.
He peppered his press conferences with references to coaches like Steve Spurrier with whom he’d worked, and once told a reporter, “Can you imagine how much you could get done if you didn’t have to eat or sleep?”
But he also brought baggage with him from Florida.
Gator fans were never sold on him as the replacement for Spurrier. Zook won in each of his three seasons in Gainesville, but never enough, going 8-5, 8-5 and 7-4.
And he had the distinction of being perhaps the first target of a serious Internet campaign to fire a coach. The Web site Fireronzook.com went up shortly after he got the job. He also reportedly got into a shouting match during the 2004 season on the Florida campus with members of a fraternity after a fight between them and some of his players.
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