By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Things Illini Nation learned this past week: 1) Ron Zook now works for a bank, and 2) Mike Thomas is willing to invest time in rebutting him.
The former may be strange, particularly for a football coach who sometimes couldn’t count his team’s scores, let alone beans.
But the latter? Well, it’s truly baffling.
And Thomas really needs to be bigger than that. After all, the Illini AD has bigger fish to fry these days than addressing his ex-coach’s gripes. Namely, his current coach’s performance, although the touchy reaction to Zook is likely tied to that.
Last weekend, the Sun-Times reported that the affable-but-daffy Zook, who led Illinois to a 34-51 record in seven erratic seasons before Thomas fired him in December 2011, is now working in Ocala, Fla. He’s not a football coach – not now, at least – but rather is serving as the community relations/business development officer for GatewayBank, of which he’s a shareholder.
“It keeps me busy,” the 59-year-old Zook told Sun-Times reporter Steve Greenberg, before eventually spinning off into lamentations about the demise of his coaching career at Illinois.
In explaining his final season in Champaign – during which the Illini started out 6-0 before promptly losing their next six – Zook tried to blame a Rose Bowl hangover from the 2008 season on the 2011 collapse.
‘‘I really believe that going to the Rose Bowl in our third year probably retarded our progress a little bit,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think we were close to being where we needed to go. You have that success, and then everybody thinks that you’re there – not only the players but the community and the supporters. As much as you tell them you’re not there, they don’t hear it. That’s why staying on top is harder than getting to the top.”
It’s a silly excuse, of course. But, hey, if Zook wants to believe that’s the truth, then so be it. His opinions shouldn’t really matter at all in the world of Illini football these days. But, oddly, Thomas thought they did enough to address them, point by point.
About Zook’s Rose Bowl argument, Thomas told the Sun-Times that ‘‘It’s about chipping away (until) you can sustain success” and even went on to provide examples of how Iowa under Hayden Fry and Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez eventually found sustained success after struggling early on at their Big Ten schools.
When Zook was asked about the 2012 Illini – a group then went 2-10 under his replacement Tim Beckman – he said, “I feel bad for the kids. To see them not reach their goals was hard. They had some talent to be a pretty good football team.”
Inexplicably, Thomas again responded to Zook’s critique, taking a dig at his ex-coach by telling the Sun-Times about the challenges that he believes Beckman faces to “put a Big Ten roster together, a team with some depth.”
So why exactly would Mike Thomas feel compelled to talk to a newspaper about the coach he fired 20 months ago? Well, I don’t think he would if he felt confident about the coach he hired to replace him.
As we prepare to enter the 2013 season, the heat is on Beckman. But it’s back on Thomas too after John Groce’s basketball team soothed the Illini fandom’s unruly beast during the winter and spring.
Mike Thomas surely is feeling hot under the collar about his Beckman hire and the criticism that it’s generated. But when it comes to taking out his frustrations by taking Ron Zook’s bait, he needs to cool it.
And instead focus on the football coach at hand.
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.