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updated: 11/19/2011 8:28 PM

Zook's time at Illinois running out

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  • Illinois coach Ron Zook looks on from the sidelines during Saturday's home loss to Wisconsin. The Illini have lost five straight games.

      Illinois coach Ron Zook looks on from the sidelines during Saturday's home loss to Wisconsin. The Illini have lost five straight games.
    Associated Press

 
 

The point-after was missed when Ron Zook abruptly left a news conference last week in protest of a question relative to his job status.

The story wasn't that he huffed out but that he didn't keep going. It's time Illinois' football coach told his story walking off campus, if anybody cares anymore.

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Even Zook might be relieved to be relieved of his duties. The guy looks like a dead man walking, professionally speaking.

Zook's biggest problem Saturday was that his biggest problem wasn't merely another Illini defeat.

It wasn't just that Illinois has a five-game losing streak or that the Fighting Illini's 6-5 record is more miserable than it sounds.

It wasn't even that Illinois blew a 14-0 lead and Zook made some dubious coaching decisions on the way to Wisconsin's 28-17 victory.

It wasn't even that a season that started out 6-0, with a schedule that had eight of 12 games at home and the toughest opponents coming to Champaign … that that start and schedule should have ended with a 9-3 record at worst but has deteriorated toward 7-5 at best and a minor bowl game.

No, Zook's biggest problem against Wisconsin was about 17,000 empty seats in Memorial Stadium.

If an athletic director at any allegedly big-time university hates anything more than losing games it's losing fans.

Nobody did a body count to determine how many of the 45,000 in the crowd were rooting for Wisconsin. However, ringing in Zook's ears this week will be the "T-o-o-o-o-o-n!" that Badgers fans crowed every time Nick Toon caught a pass.

Worst of all for Zook is that Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas is barely a couple of blinks into the job with no allegiance to the current coaching staff.

Thomas didn't hire Zook, which means day to day he is more likely to fire him.

Let the speculation begin over Zook's replacement, as if it hadn't already as Illinois leaked losses to Ohio State … and then to Purdue … and then to Penn State … and then to Michigan … all leading up to the Wisconsin meltdown.

The most prominent candidate mentioned is Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach with a circus passing offense.

But a good guess is Leach -- who sued Texas Tech after the Red Raiders fired him over treatment of a player -- is too controversial for a new athletic director to embrace.

Meanwhile, Urban Meyer is too good for Illinois. Joe Paterno is available but not viable. Bear Bryant is dead.

So who? Let's follow the bread crumbs from Cincinnati, where Thomas was the AD before moving to Champaign.

The Bearcats' last two head coaches went to more prestigious positions, Mark Dantonio to Michigan State and Brian Kelly to Notre Dame.

Two years ago Thomas hired Cincinnati's current head coach, Butch Jones, who was having a good season until the Bearcats lost their last two games.

The way things are going at Illinois, Illini fans have to wonder whether a two-game losing streak qualifies or disqualifies a coach from taking over their program.

The only thing the Illini have going for them now is that so many Big Ten powers that be -- like Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan -- keep soiling their traditions.

If Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State can find a way to get caught cheating …

Well, then Illinois might be able to contend for the middle of the conference.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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