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Columnist
Why hasn't Illini coach Zook's time run out?
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist

Illinois coach Ron Zook

 

Associated Press

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Published: 12/12/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/12/200 12:19 AM

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Notre Dame gets it. Illinois doesn't.

Notre Dame sees a coach that, after five years, has proven he can't take the Irish where they want to go.

Notre Dame fires that coach and hires the National Coach of the Year.

Short of rewinding the calendar back to Rockne era, bringing in Brian Kelly was the best thing the Irish could do today.

Illinois sees a coach that, after five years, has proven he can't take the Illini where they want to go.

Illinois fires four of the coach's hand-picked assistants, but keeps the coach who likely led the BCS in unmet expectations.

Short of reporting major NCAA violations on themselves - I'm not insinuating there are any to report - that's the worst thing the Illini could do right now.

I'm going to take a wild guess and estimate there's not a single Illinois football fan who believes the program's four biggest problems were first-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, receivers coach Jim Pry, quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard and special teams coach Mike Woodford.

(Well, I can envision everyone blaming "Woody" for the Illini's continual special-teams woes, but that's it).

Yes, Illinois' offense stunk during the first half of the season. Yes, the coaches tried to blame Juice Williams by benching him in Week 5.

But it's hard to ignore the fact Illinois averaged 35.4 points per game in its last five outings while surrendering 33.6.

It's hard to ignore the fact the guys who stayed on staff - including head coach Ron Zook - are the guys responsible for the defense.

In firing three of the five offensive coaches Friday, Illinois' decision-makers told everyone they know better than the folks who watch the games, know the stats, buy the tickets and donate the big money.

They've told everyone Zook can fix this.

Never mind that several media outlets have reported a fistful of four-star sophomores - several of the biggest recruiting "gets" after the Rose Bowl season - are leaving the program.

Never mind that one national Top 100 recruit from the Class of 2010 has gone back on his Illinois commitment in order to pledge Iowa.

For those who don't remember, this is a sign Illinois football has come full circle in the Zook era.

Iowa's ability to come into the suburbs and take a bunch of four- and five-star recruits (including Wheaton Warrenville South's Tony Moeaki and Dace Richardson and Barrington's Dan Doering) precipitated Ron Turner's firing after the 2004 season and inspired Zook's hiring.

It's too late to point out these things now. What's not done is done. Zook gets at least one more year to turn around Illinois - or does he?

Here's the orange-and-blue elephant in the room: The 2009 season all but ended when Missouri, a 6.5-point underdog, buried underprepared Illinois 37-9 in the opener.

I believe Zook's future rests on next year's opener with Missouri. Another misstep into the canyon and it's over.

How do you recruit after another unexpected whipping? How do you quiet the howls when, yet again, the Big Ten slate opens with Ohio State and Penn State?

(Don't forget Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois come to town before Big Ten play - and they'll have no shortage of motivation).

Yes, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther and Zook bought some time with Friday's decision ... but not nearly as much as they thought.

All they've done is make Zook's off-season more manic than ever before.