Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal …
Halfway gone? Myself … and Ron Zook
The WISCH LIST
Oct. 17, 2009
I don’t leave sporting events early.
At least, I sure don’t very often.
I go to a baseball game, I’m there for nine innings (or 13). I take in a basketball tilt, I’m in my seat ’til the buzzer (even if it’s vs. Northeastern Southwesterly A&M). And if I attend a football game? Well, I expect to last all four quarters.
But last Saturday, I barely made it through two.
After watching Illinois muster a paltry 60 yards of offense to trail Michigan State 17-0 at halftime during Homecoming in chilly Champaign, I got up to buy a hot chocolate.
And never came home to my seat.
It had nothing to do with the weather. Unless the whether you’re talking about is if the Red Grange statue outside Memorial Stadium can move the ball better than the Illini offense this season.
Enough, quite simply, is enough.
And, with Illinois football, I had seen enough.
Enough offensive ineptness. Enough defensive breakdowns. Enough silly penalties. Enough off-field run-ins with the law. Enough frustrating losses.
And enough Ron Zook.
Since my freshman year at U of I in 1994, I’ve been a football season ticket holder for 13 of the past 15 years. And during that time, the Fighting Illini have gone to only four bowl games.
Last week in this space, I wrote that perhaps the only thing more baffling than the Chicago Cubs’ inability to win a World Series in 101 years is their inability to even reach one in 64.
Well, perhaps the only thing more baffling than that is Illinois’ inability to reach back-to-back bowl games for nearly two decades. In college football, it takes only six wins to qualify for the postseason, yet Illinois hasn’t accomplished that feat in consecutive years since 1991-92.
Since then, we’ve endured the Lou Tepper era, the Ron Turner era and, now, the Ron Zook era. And while I may not know the reason why Illini football can soar to great heights (2002 Sugar Bowl, 2008 Rose Bowl) but can’t sustain success, I do know that it’s time for the program to move on. Again.
Ron Zook needs to go.
Truth be told, I was never that excited about Zook’s hiring following his dismissal from Florida in 2004. I was encouraged with the recruiting upgrade he would likely provide Illinois, but I also knew that the Gators – who have since gone on to win two national championships under Urban Meyer – had let Zook go for a reason.
Mainly that he’s not cut out to be a head coach.
My skepticism about the hire was fed as early as Zook’s first press conference when he repeatedly mispronounced our state’s name as “Illinoise.” I let the malaprops slide, but did find it dubious.
The doubts were amplified in 2006 when I watched Zook inexplicably opt to go for two-point conversions twice (twice!) in the first quarter (the first quarter!) against Indiana in Champaign. The Illini failed both times and eventually blew a huge lead to lose 34-32.
By two points.
In 2007, I again sat mystified as Zook, rather than forcing Iowa to punt, twice accepted third-down penalties that instead helped the Hawkeyes score, resulting in a maddening 10-6 loss for the Illini in Iowa City.
Such simple coaching decisions shouldn’t cost a team wins.
This spring, I found myself again shaking my head at Zook when while serving as emcee at Illini event in Oak Brook he greeted the crowd by saying, “It’s great to be here with the University of Flori … Illinois.”
Yes, it was a slip-up. But five years into a relationship, should you really still be dropping your ex-wife’s name?
Look, I think Ron Zook’s a good guy. I don’t think he’s suited to run a major college program. He’s an energetic recruiter, but I also think his recruiting is overrated. Because, in Champaign, Zook’s “legend” was built largely on the recruitment of three highly-rated players: Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, of which all three have been disappointments to varying degrees.
Otherwise, Illinois’ recruiting has been good, not great. Even with talent, however, you still have to develop it. Zook simply has not.
After reaching the Rose Bowl, there was no excuse for Illinois going 5-7 last season. And, this year, even if the 1-4 Illini are to somehow manage six wins and sneak into a bowl game, the season would still be an enormous flop based on the expectations set two years ago.
Ron Zook has had his five years. He’s failed. Illinois athletics director Ron Guenther cannot fail again, too. This time, he needs to hire a real head coach.
Not a defensive coordinator (Tepper). Not an offensive coordinator (Turner). Not a “recruiter” (Zook). A head coach.
A. Head. Coach.
Last Saturday, as I exited Memorial Stadium at halftime, two students were just having their tickets torn for the game.
“You guys are just getting here?” I said, sipping my hot chocolate. “You might as well turn around.”
They laughed, but didn’t turn around.
To avoid becoming a laughingstock, Illinois had better turn it around.
But it needs a new coach to show the way.