Wisch: Champaign, Where Football Coaching Careers Go To Die
By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) ‘Twas the season for coaching changes.
For a few schools, it still is. And for others, it still could be if the NFL ends up snatching their coveted football guru away from them.
During the past month or so, nearly 30 colleges across the country have swapped out the leaders of their pigskin programs. Most of the job openings have come about as a result of someone being fired. Others, however – such as Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and Cincinnati – have emerged after coaches moved on to bigger and better jobs.
Or, at least, ones that pay them more money.
Badgers fans weren’t pleased, of course, to see Bret Bielema bolt Wisconsin’s Dairyland for Hog Heaven in Arkansas. Meanwhile, NIU and Cincy boosters were surely bummed as they watched Dave Doeren and Butch Jones leave for N.C. State and Tennessee, respectively. Nevertheless, as disappointing as those departures might have been for those schools, the fact that the coaches were in demand was a badge of honor, as well.
It meant their teams were successful.
But then there’s the University of Illinois, the sadsack program of the prairie whose last three head football coaches can now be found at Florida International University (Ron Turner), the University of Buffalo (Lou Tepper) and, well, the coaching unemployment line (Ron Zook).
Last week, when news broke that former Illini coach Ron Turner – who went 35-57 in Champaign from 1997 to 2004 – had been hired by the Florida International Golden Panthers, my friend Dallon astutely observed on Facebook, “When your past coaches wind up as head coach at FIU and defensive coordinator at Buffalo, is it any wonder why Illinois is the most underachieving BCS program in America?”
Nope, it is not.
While Northern Illinois has recently seen its coaches voluntarily take jobs at Minnesota and N.C. State, Illinois hasn’t had a football coach leave of his own accord since 1991 when John Mackovic took his 30-16-1 record (and .652 winning percentage) off to Texas. And in the 20 seasons following Mackovic’s departure, Illinois went on to compile a 94-139-2 mark (.403) and fired three coaches.
Tepper, who was canned by Illinois in 1996 with a 25-31-2 record, didn’t become a head coach again until 2000, and that was only at Edinboro (Pa.) – a Division II school. He later took another head job at Indiana – Pennsylvania – before being fired and ultimately becoming Buffalo’s defensive coordinator last season.
Turner, after bouncing around the NFL – including a second stint as the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator – didn’t get another head coaching opportunity until he took the FIU job.
And then there’s Zook, who was fired a year ago by Illinois after posting a 34-51 record. Since then Zook has been bypassed by many a school with open head coaching positions, including FIU, which is probably the conference level where he’s most likely to re-emerge.
As for Turner, he said about the Golden Panthers gig, “I really believe this program is ready to take the next step, which is to win at a high level in Conference USA, to win consistently and compete for a Conference USA championship on a regular basis. That’s our goal. That’s our vision.”
Apparently, it’s Luke Butkus’ vision, as well. Because on Wednesday night, news leaked that Illinois’ current offensive line coach is leaving for FIU to reunite with his old coach as Turner’s “run-game coordinator.” Whatever that is.
That an assistant would leave a Big Ten job for a C-USA one speaks about as well for Illinois’ current coach Tim Beckman as the current job statuses of Illini coaches speak for the overall program.
“I’d MUCH rather see Illinois’ past head coaches ending up, say, as head coaches at Texas, LSU, USC or in the NFL,” my buddy Dallon said last week, preaching to the choir. “Once that happens, I’ll know Illinois football is back. At some point, one of those coaches will eventually want to stay and build Illinois.”
That would be something.
Since Mackovic, they’ve only done the opposite.
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.