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Four reasons why Illinois won't fire Zook this season
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff

Illinois coach Ron Zook encourages his team during its loss to Indiana in Bloomington last weekend. With four more years on his contract, Illinois may not be able to afford cutting Zook lose at the end of this season.


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Published: 10/23/2009 5:02 PM

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Just for fun, I just revisited my notes from Nov. 22, 2004. What happened on that date?

Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther fired Ron Turner, which paved the way for Guenther to hire Ron Zook.

Guenther fired Turner with two years left on his contract because "I felt we had reached a point of no return - specifically as it relates to recruiting."

While Zook certainly has lured more four- and five-star recruits to Champaign than Turner did, he's no longer fulfilling Guenther's guiding principle.

On that Nov. 22, 2004 afternoon, Guenther was asked if he was looking for a coach who would fire up the masses.

"Firing up the masses?" Guenther replied. "What people want to see is wins. They want to see winning and winning. You don't have to win them all, but you have to win your share."

Well, as Illinois heads into today's game at Purdue, that's not exactly occurring. Zook's crew has lost six consecutive Big Ten games and eight straight against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.

Turner got whacked after losing 15 of his last 16 Big Ten games and 17 of his last 19 against FBS foes.

Zook will be in that neighborhood if Illinois goes 1-5 or 0-6 the rest of the way - but will he be shown the door as Turner was?

Some people believe Illinois isn't stable enough to search for a coach this year. Its president and chancellor recently "resigned" and the 64-year-old Guenther, who has been Illinois' AD since 1992, seems to be plotting his retirement on a year-to-year basis.

As long as Guenther wants to stay, the other two personnel issues won't stop him from firing Zook. Richard Herman was the interim chancellor when Turner was fired, yet Guenther was allowed to report to him alone while conducting the Zook search.

But I have at least four reasons to believe Zook will be Illinois' coach when it opens the 2010 season against Missouri in St. Louis.

1. Zook has four more years on his contract at an estimated $1.3-1.5 million per. That's a much bigger meatball than Turner's buyout, which turned out to be four payments of $450,000.

2. To date, Illinois has not suffered a financially ruinous slump in attendance. In Turner's final year, the Illini averaged 48,626 fans for their 7 home games. This year, they've averaged 62,696 in their three home games, with Michigan and Northwestern looking like strong gates as well.

3. Zook's recruiting remains decent. He has three four-star prospects among his nine commitments: QB Chandler Whitmer (Downers Grove South), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (Johnsburg) and S Corey Cooper (Proviso East).

If they stay in the boat, Zook should be OK. Then again, Turner had Rashard Mendenhall, the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting running back, in his upcoming recruiting class and that didn't save him.

4. Zook acts like a man who's thinking more about 2010 than getting whacked.

As he said Tuesday when asked about shaking up lineups: "You can't make complete wholesale changes, I don't think, and start over. Not yet."

On the other hand, if Illinois keeps losing, Guenther may use Zook's words against him and start over.