Ron Zook Has Been Taking Plenty Of Criticism Lately

(WSCR)It seems with every college football season we see coaches get put on the hot seat or get fired for slow starts. However, coaches who get their teams off to great starts aren’t immune to criticism and pressure, because with a better than expected start comes higher expectations.

Back in August, most Illinois football fans would have been happy with five wins in the book and two more games to play.

But five wins in their first eight games changed expectations for the rebuilding Illini and, after a tough-to-explain loss to three-touchdown underdog Minnesota, coach Ron Zook is hearing from fans.

Few of them are happy.

Zook said he’s getting a lot of e-mail from fans – most but not all of it complaining about the Minnesota loss and the one the week before at Michigan. Fan message boards and online chat rooms are full of gripes, too.

But Zook, the target of irritated fans at Florida before he even coached a game there, said he doesn’t take it personally.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he told a reporter at Tuesday’s news conference. “I’ve been through this before.”

The 38-34 loss to Minnesota left the Illini at 5-5 (3-4 Big Ten), and for the third straight week a win shy of the six victories needed to become bowl eligible. Illinois finishes the year at Northwestern (7-3) on Saturday in a game played at Wrigley Field, and then at Fresno State (6-3).

Zook entered this season with a mandate from athletic director Ron Guenther to make serious improvements after a 3-9 season. Most of Zook’s staff was fired at the end of that season.

There was little doubt Illinois had improved before the past two weeks.

But the Minnesota game in particular – against what had been a one-win team – riled some fans.

Zook has declined to dissect in detail what went wrong against the Gophers, though he said in one news conference that the team didn’t tackle well Saturday.

“What’s happened (has) happened. There’s no use feeling sorry for ourselves. There’s no use blaming,” he said.

As for the complaints – which he said he tries to answer himself if they come by e-mail – Zook said he’d rather hear complaints about why expectations aren’t being met rather than silence indicating fans have no expectations.

“You’d rather have people that cared than didn’t care,” he said.

Zook’s $1.5 million annual contract runs through 2014 and most of the assistant coaches added for this season have two-year deals. That could lead to a potentially hefty buyout – in tight economic times – if Illinois wanted to hire a new coach with his own staff.

Guenther hasn’t spoken publicly since August about his expectations.

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