By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) He might be off waterskiing somewhere. Maybe he’s brushing up on how to keep track of game scores. Or perhaps at this very moment, he has his feet kicked up in a La-Z-Boy, a beer in his hand and visions of his old recruiting conquests dancing like sugarplums in his head.
We don’t really know what Ron Zook is up to these days.
But we do know that he’s no longer in Champaign coaching the University of Illinois football team. And that fact has me pondering this question: would the Fighting Illini – currently 2-8 overall, 0-6 in the Big Ten – be a better team right now if The Zooker was still running the show?
I’d venture to say yes. Even yes, indeed. But don’t take that to mean I’m advocating the launch of HireRonZook.com – not at all.
Last December, after Zook’s 2011 Illinois team saw a 6-0 start disintegrate into an 0-6 finish to the regular season, first-year athletic director Mike Thomas decided to finally send the coach on his way. And, really, who could blame him?
After all, in seven seasons in Champaign, Zook had produced only two winning seasons: the 9-4 Rose Bowl campaign of 2007 and a 7-6 mark in 2010. Overall, his record at Illinois was a meager 34-51 (for a .400 winning percentage) and his Big Ten mark was even worse at 18-38 (.321). On top of that, the number of Zook’s questionable – or downright boneheaded – game management decisions were too many to count.
Without a doubt, the former Florida coach was given ample time to succeed at Illinois, but he didn’t. It was time for him to go.
However, all that said, in Zook’s last six seasons, the Illini lost just six games by a margin of at least 20 points. This year during new coach Tim Beckman’s first nine games, Illinois already lost five by that margin.
As maddening as Illinois’ 0-6 tailspin was to finish the 2011 regular season, looking back the losses weren’t that lopsided. Those six defeats came by margins of 10, 7, 3, 17, 11 and 20 points. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have taken much at all for Illinois to have split those six and finished with a banner 9-3 record. The Illini didn’t do it, though, and that was that.
The vexing thing about Zook’s final team was that it couldn’t finish games. On the other hand, the vexing thing about Beckman’s first one is that it can’t even start them. This year, the Illini have lost by 31, 28, 28, 17, 45, 14, 30 and 14. That’s an average defeat of 25.9 points. Heck, Illinois’ offense has only averaged 16.9 points per game this season.
On Aug. 31 before Illinois’ season opener vs. Michigan I wrote a column entitled “Why Illini Football Fans Can Thank Ron Zook,” in which I acknowledged him for being the first coach since John Mackovic in 1991 to have actually left the program in better shape than he found it. Now, that’s not the same thing as saying that Zook left the program where it should have been.
Nevertheless, Beckman did inherit from Zook a program that had won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history and returned 15 starters, including a three-year vet at quarterback and eight seniors on defense. Looking at Illinois’ schedule, it wasn’t unrealistic to have hoped for the 2012 Illini to compete in a down year for the Big Ten.
Zook, for one, thought they would be in the mix, telling the Sun-Times in August, “I know this. The program is close. I don’t count the first two years. The program was down. If you go back and look at the last five years and look at the history of Illinois, we were about as close as anybody’s been, except for coach (Mike) White, and he got in trouble. We had too much success too quick, and we didn’t handle it right. But we were finally starting to get back on track.
“Regardless of what people think, we were making progress. We were spiraling up. We weren’t spiraling down. We accomplished some things that no one’s ever accomplished there. The team has a chance to be pretty good this year. They have a pretty good team coming back, particularly on defense, and I think they’ll be pretty good on offense. (Quarterback) Nathan (Scheelhaase) is going to have a big year.”
Well, Scheelhaase hasn’t. An the offense hasn’t been pretty good, it’s been incredibly bad. Same goes for the defense.
Now, one can certainly argue that Zook overstated the talent leve of his returning players. Others can argue that Tim Beckman has just made everyone that much worse. I would guess that the truth falls somewhere in between.
But I do think that if Zook was still the Illini coach in 2012 – and, more significantly, if Vic Koenning was still the defensive coordinator – Illinois likely would be a better team than it is right now. The record might not be vastly improved, perhaps another win or two, but I suspect that the level of competitiveness would be significantly increased.
Again, that’s not to say that Zook should still be the head coach at Illinois. Rather, it’s to say that Beckman doesn’t much look like he should be, either. In fact, Beckman has looked so bad this season that he’s actually made Zook look good by comparison. That’s no easy trick.
And it says everything you need to know about the 2012 Illini.
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.