By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) In 2009, the University of Illinois football program was in a bind.
Just two seasons earlier, the 9-4 Fighting Illini had played in the Rose Bowl and the team’s prospects were soaring. However, appearing in the Grandaddy of Them All had failed to spawn success.
Instead, Ron Zook’s Rose Bowl follow-up went a disappointing 5-7 during the 2008 season. And then in 2009, his Illini slipped even further, finishing with a 3-9 record.
Those struggles made Zook’s Rose Bowl berth look far more like an exception for the coach than a rule considering how by the end of ’09 he had just a 21-39 overall record in five seasons that included a miserable 12-28 mark in the Big Ten.
Looking at those numbers, the smart move for Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther would have been to fire Zook. However, Guenther instead decided to try to patch things together by hiring a pair of high-priced assistants to buttress Zook in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
The plan worked. Sort of.
With Zook relegated to little more than a figurehead, Illinois did bounce back with a 7-6, 4-4 season in 2010 that included a victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. The following season, the Illini then jumped out to an exciting 6-0 start only to fall on their faces and lose their final six regular-season games, which led to Zook’s firing by new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
Thomas apparently decided that Guenther’s experiment of having an incompetent coach held up by two competent coordinators wasn’t the right path for Illinois. And he was right, it wasn’t.
Because, while the moves resulted in a temporary measure of increased success, Zook’s weakened role caused his recruiting pipeline to shrivel up, and as head coach he still had enough power to make special teams and game and clock management decisions capable of costing Illinois victories.
In the end, the patchwork accomplished next to nothing. And Thomas’ decision to dismiss Zook made complete sense. However, bringing in the equally (if not more?) incompetent Tim Beckman as his replacement did not. Because, flash forward to 2013 and Illinois is now facing a scenario disturbingly similar to the one that it faced in just 2009.
Following, Beckman’s disastrous 2-10, 0-8 campaign to start his Illini career in 2012, Thomas green lit the decision to bring in the experienced Bill Cubit as Illinois’ new offensive coordinator. In turn, the Illini’s offense has largely excelled this season, but the defense has still remained a disaster leaving Beckman’s second team at 3-6 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten. The new coach is yet to win a conference game, and Illinois has now lost 19 consecutive league contests with unbeaten Ohio State on tap this weekend. So, make it 20.
With the program still struggling so mightily, Sun-Times reporter Steve Greenberg this week asked Thomas if he’s committed to Beckman in 2014.
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” Thomas said. “You ask the question, ‘Is the program developing and getting better?’ I think it is. I’m looking forward to continuing progress in the program.”
If the Illinois program is getting better, it’s awfully hard to see with the team losing by an average of 43-23 in Big Ten games. But, regardless, the only hope for Illinois to continue progress (or start it) is by firing embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hoping that Thomas can hire a talented assistant to replacement him.
If that does happens, Illinois – at best – is back to where it stood just two years ago with the triumvirate of Zook, Petrino and Koenning, a weak coach lifted up only by his two coordinators.
And if that’s progress in Thomas’ eyes, well, I’d sure hate to see what he considers to be failure.
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.