Why the Bears could use a shot of Champaign

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Why the Bears could use a shot of Champaign


Jan. 23, 2010

Back in 2002, the Chicago Bears and Fighting Illini shared more than team colors, Dick Butkus bragging rights and cool logos.

They shared a playing field, as well.

While Soldier Field was undergoing its dramatic disfiguration, er … renovation up in Chicago, the Monsters of the Midway spent the season patrolling the prairie as they hosted NFL opponents at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Eight years later, the Bears and U. of I. football again hold more in common than mere orange and blue.

They both have head coaches whose heads many fans would like to see roll.

Three seasons ago the Bears were in the Super Bowl versus the Indianapolis Colts, who find themselves back in the AFC Championship Game this weekend.

Meanwhile, the Bears are just trying to find themselves.

Illinois football, which has fallen hard since reaching the Rose Bowl two years ago, is trying to find itself, too. But, as it turns out, the Illini are doing a much better job of it.

Mainly because they’re at least trying.

When it comes to seeking out – and actually hiring – new coordinators, the folks in the Bears’ front office would have been wise to follow the game plan that Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther used to pluck his preferred choices off the job market.

Instead, though, the Bears are bumbling their way through a coordinator search that’s now on to, what, Plan C?

It’s no secret to anyone that neither lllinois head coach Ron Zook (8-19 record since the 2008 Rose Bowl) nor Bears head coach Lovie Smith (23-25 since Super Bowl XLI) should probably still have their jobs. And don’t be fooled, the main reason that they do is because it would require shelling out millions of dollars to buy out their current contracts.

In an economic climate where the budget-crunched University of Illinois is forcing faculty to take unpaid furloughs, while the labor contract-crunched NFL is facing a possible lockout in 2011, I understand that.

I might not like it, but I do understand it.

What I don’t understand, though, is why the Bears’ so-called brain trust of team president Ted Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo is unable – or unwilling – to see the true flaws of the head coach that they’ve decided to retain and then do something proactive about it.

Ron Guenther did it.

With many Illinois fans howling for Zook to be fired following a dismal 3-9 season, Guenther made the unpopular decision to retain his head coach, instead opting to fire most of his staff. The move seemed to sentence Illinois to a 2010 season without any hope or even reason to watch.

Why, after all, would a legitimate coordinator decide to work with a head coach who has little job security?

Guenther, though, surprised everyone by hiring highly regarded offensive coordinator Paul Petrino from Arkansas and then swiping Kansas State defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who was coveted by Georgia.

He did it by paying big bucks ($435,000 for Petrino and $325,000 for Koenning). But also by giving the new coordinators total control, while wisely stripping it from a head coach who had proved he no longer deserved it.

Gone from Illinois next season will be Zook’s preferred spread offense in favor of Petrino’s pro-style attack, while Zook’s porous defensive schemes will be replaced by Koenning’s new aggressive attack.

With a fierce schedule and questionable talent, it’s still unlikely that Illinois will reach a bowl next season, but at least there’s now a new reason to watch.

Guenther tried to do something different, unlike the Bears who instead are merely pretending to do so.

“To bring in two new coordinators is quite a massive change,” Ted Phillips said recently. “We’ll get the right people in here that can embrace the systems that Lovie wants to put together on both sides of the ball.”

But can’t Phillips see that’s the entire problem? It shouldn’t be who Smith wants on both sides of the ball. It should be who he needs.

Like Ron Zook, Lovie Smith has proved that his systems no longer work. They should be scrapped in favor of something new that’s imagined by dynamic coordinators looking to shake things up.

No dynamic coordinators, though, want to take a job where they’ll be stuck running the failed schemes of a head coach who’s a year away from being fired.

As a result, the Bears will most likely end up hiring third-tier coordinators willing to obey Smith. And what that means is that, next season, Bears fans will find themselves watching a team resembling Bill Murray in the movie honoring a holiday arriving soon.

You know, “Groundhog Day.”

I see 16 more weeks of mediocrity.