By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) His management of Illinois’ special teams was, well, special. His ability to keep track of the score wasn’t exactly something you could count on. And if he wasn’t making a bad clock-management decision, then the guy probably wasn’t making any decisions at all. Nevertheless, in spite of all that – and the 34-51 record he left town with – Fighting Illini football fans do have a good reason to thank Ron Zook this weekend.
That’s because Zook, who was fired last year after seven seasons in Champaign, left the Illinois football program in far better shape than he found it. And at U. of I., that’s saying something.
Illinois kicks off the 2012 season Saturday against Western Michigan at Memorial Stadium, marking the first game for Tim Beckman, who becomes the 10th football coach to lead the Illini since 1960.
Of the nine men who preceded him, including Zook, eight left town because they were fired for losing too much or running afoul of too many NCAA rules. The only coach to leave of his own accord during the past five decades was John Mackovic, who bolted to the University of Texas late in Ilinois’ 1991 season.
He’s also the last coach to have left the Illini program in respectable condition.
When Mackovic took the Longhorns job, Illinois was 6-5 and headed to the John Hancock Bowl. Lou Tepper coached that bowl game, lost, and five seasons later – despite having been left with the remaining talent from Mackovic’s four-year, 30-16-1 era – was fired after Illinois had degenerated into a 2-9 team.
So empty was the cupboard that Tepper left in Champaign, when Ron Turner opened it for the 1997 season, he won zero games. After that 0-11 inaugural season, Turner built Illinois into a Big Ten champ four years later, only to tear it all back down again. He was fired in 2004 following consecutive 1-11 and 3-8 campaigns.
In 2005, Zook inherited an Illini program so bereft of talent that it produced just 2-9 and 2-10 records in his first two seasons. In ’08, however, Illinois won nine games and reached the Rose Bowl before Zook followed Tepper’s and Turner’s leads back down the totem pole.
The Illini program never slid all the way back into the sub-basement, though, and Zook left to Beckman an Illinois program that produced its first back-to-back bowl victories in two decades.
Offensively, Beckman inherits a three-year starter in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has led the team to both those bowl wins. And on the defensive side, Illinois returns eight senior starters and standout junior linebacker Jonathan Brown to the fold.
The talent level among Illinois’ underclassmen is lacking as Zook’s recruiting dropped off the past few years, but nevertheless Illinois’ former coach still left the school’s new one in a far better position to win than what he discovered in 2005.
And while I’m glad Zook has headed off to other pastures, I will tip my cap to him for that as Illinois football starts fresh again.
But, mercifully, not completely broken.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.