The Zook Era: A Retrospective

 
In an announcement that was a surprise only to Whitney Mercilus, the Ron Zook Era officially came to an end earlier today. Although it felt likely as the wheels rapidly came off the season, after yesterday's nadir – a 27-7 loss to a Minnesota team that lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State – it was a matter of "when" and not "if."
I liked Ron Zook. I figured he got a raw deal at Florida back in 2004. I covered his introductory press conference and immediately picked up on his contagious energy. This was a guy that really wanted to do well at Illinois and stay here as long as he could. And I got that part right. But I was wrong about Florida. Head-scratching game management, abysmal special teams (allegedly his specialty), completely confusing losses to vastly inferior teams (see: yesterday)…these aren't the ways to build a consistent competitor, which is all you need to stay at Illinois. Seriously. Just get to .500 in the Big Ten, work with the AD to schedule like you have half a brain, and you're set. Unfortunately, we were 20 games (!) under .500 in conference play during Zook's tenure.
But all is not lost. When Mike Thomas says "it's clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited" he's not just spouting platitudes because he fired the guy and wants to be nice. If someone said that after the Ron Turner Era, it would be a lie. Turner stayed a year beyond even the most lenient expectations (1-11 in 2003!) and totally cratered the program. Zook is leaving a bowl-ready team to whoever takes over. He substantially raised the bar for talent. He won at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State (only four coaches have ever done that) and took us to the Rose Bowl. He worked hard and would run through a wall for his players. For all those things, he has my thanks as an Illinois alum and football fan.
So let's look back over those seven interesting years.
 
2005 (2-9, 0-8)
Highlight – The season opener against Rutgers, a 33-30 OT win that saw us use a blocked FG to erase a 27-10 4th quarter deficit, and was generally completely inexplicable.
Lowlight – Is it a cop-out to say "the entire conference season"? If so, then it's the homecoming game against Penn State in which we trailed 56-3 at the half. Again, note the statement above re: Ron Turner leaving us a defense that consisted largely of converted QBs playing the secondary.
 
2006 (2-10, 1-7)
Highlight – Somehow winning at Michigan State. This was perhaps one of the biggest nails in John L. Smith's coffin, so, you're welcome, Sparty. Enjoy the Big Ten Championship Game next weekend. This also gives me a chance to post this video again, in which we ill-advisedly attempted to plant a flag at midfield at Spartan Stadium, and I am caught up in the ensuing melee:
Lowlight – A home loss to Ohio! Not Ohio State. Ohio. The Bobcats. This is the first instance of losing a game we had no business losing whatsoever. A more astute fanbase would have picked up on this and raised an eyebrow, but we had recently witnessed a home loss to SJSU (you don't even know what that abbreviation means, do you? It's San Jose State, but the point stands.) so our ability to pick up on the differences between losses was not finely tuned at the time.
 
2007 (9-4, 6-2, Rose Bowl)
Highlight – Easy. Rose Bowl. We won the Big Ten outright in 2001 and got screwed out of Pasadena, so this felt especially great. LOOK AT THE FUN THAT WAS HAD BY ALL:
Battling for second: ruining Ohio State's undefeated season in Columbus, great back-to-back wins over Penn State and Wisconsin (Sidenote: It's really fun to have multiple things to talk about in the "What was awesomest?" discussion. Alas.)
Lowlight – "Oh hey, just Michigan here; we're stopping by to take a dump on this sucessful season you're having. We've done this consistently since 1994, don't worry about it."
 
2008 (5-7, 3-5)
HighlightCurb-stomping Michigan at the Big House behind 431 yards (!) from Juice Williams.
Lowlight – My brain is saying it should be losing to Northwestern in the season finale with bowl eligibility on the line. But my gut knows it's really losing to Western Michigan at Ford Field in a game that magically brought together scheduling ineptitude with on-the-sidelines butt-clenching. Magic!
 
2009 (3-9, 2-6)
Highlight – Stomping Michigan again. God, I miss those RichRod defenses.
Lowlight – There are so many to choose from, but really, any time you lose to Indiana by more than ten, it's gotta be that, right?
 
2010 (7-6, 4-4, Texas Bowl)
Highlight – It was fun to slap around Northwestern when they dressed up Wrigley for their little party, but dominating Penn State in Happy Valley just felt like a much bigger deal.
Lowlight – We lost to Fresno State in consecutive seasons. That really happened.
 
And then there's this year, where we became the first modern FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 0-6. I'm struggling to think of the bowl that will say "There's a team that hasn't won since October 8? Give us some of that!"
So here we are. It was seven years of fits and starts, some surprising wins and some maddening losses. Essentially, what Florida saw enough of after three seasons. Where do we go from here? I imagine I'll get caught up in the coachsearch craziness as soon as people start freaking out about which planes are flying where, but here are my out-of-the-box thoughts:
 
Would make me think about renting an RV to go to every home game next year: Kevin Sumlin, Houston – he's got a C-USA team on the verge of the BCS, is a Big Ten guy, and would be the best possible combination of "excites the fanbase" and "increases our long-term chances for success."
 
Would make me really excited, but "excited" in the sense that you're about to go skydiving: Mike Leach, Pirate – I loved watching his Texas Tech teams and think he got the shaft in the Craig James fiasco. That said, there have been a lot of job openings that would've been great for him since then, and he's not even really been in the discussion. Are ADs just sissies (possible)? Was there more to the story there that we don't know about (also possible)? Aside from that, I'm not entirely sure the Air Raid would seamlessly translate to the Big Ten, especially Champaign, where you can get a grab bag of crappy weather in October and November. If there's a definition of "high risk/high reward," this is it.
 
Would leave me nodding approvingly like when I hear about a friend making a good life decision: Tim Beckman, Toledo – the anti-Leach? Beckman has a good Midwest base, turned around a Toledo team in decline, has experience at Ohio State and Oklahoma State and seems to run a pretty tight ship. Akin to hearing about a friend buying a nice condo/house in a nice neighborhood and for a reasonable price. "You hear about Illinois? They hired Tim Beckman." "Nice, good for them!"
 
Would leave me feeling like when we hired Bruce Weber: Butch Jones, Cincinnati – The last guy Mike Thomas to hired to coach football for him. It'd be a hire that would be tough to argue with (Cincy had a nice 8-3 year) but even tougher to get excited about. It'd be a little odd for Thomas to swipe him from the Bearcats, but there are a lot worse options.
 
There's nobody yet on my "Would make me contemplate giving up on college football and just focusing on the Bears," primarily because if that guy exists, it would be Ron Guenther's birthright to find him, and he's no longer on the job. Should be an interesting week.
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