Dr. Saturday

Illinois is still on for its bowl game. It just may not have a coaching staff.

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is supposed to be an occasion for genuine human uplift: For each ticket sold, bowl organizers donate meals to three food charities in San Francisco, and the game itself is a culmination of Kraft's "Huddle to Fight Hunger" initiative, which aims to donate 25 million meals through Feeding America. What are they getting this year for their trouble? A game overshadowed by two mediocre teams who just fired their head coaches, and now a contract dispute that may leave Illinois without a coaching staff to speak of.

Several Illini assistants are fighting the university over their pending termination following Saturday's game, claiming they were promised job security through 2012. According to Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde, assistants hired by then-head coach Ron Zook in January 2010 agreed to two-year contracts that rolled over every year, and had been assured by Zook as the 2011 season went off the rails that they were safe regardless of what happened to him.

The deals the coaches actually signed in the summer of 2010, however, included a new clause — not in the original documents they'd agreed to when they were hired — that gave Illinois the right to terminate the contract at virtually any point. It exercised that right last month, when it fired Zook on the heels of six-game losing streak to close the regular season. When termination letters arrived for Zook's staff, several assistants were caught off guard by the fact that they would only be paid through the end of February, leaving them scrambling to find a seat in the annual game of musical coaching chairs while also preparing the team for a basically meaningless game against another lame duck outfit operating without its head coach, UCLA.

That prompted a few of them to hire lawyers, and according to Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, may prompt a few more to sit out Saturday's game for good measure:{YSP:MORE}

On Wednesday, [offensive line coach Joe] Gilbert said he and the three other remaining offensive assistants -- [running backs coach DeAndre] Smith, [quarterbacks coach Jeff] Brohm and [tight ends coach] Chip Long -- might boycott the game if the school didn't "step up and play in the next 48 hours."

"We all have opportunities to go elsewhere," Gilbert said. "So, if they want the bowl game to be coached, they better decide they want to treat us the right way."

Told of their threat, Illinois [athletic director] Mike Thomas said: "That's news to me." Thomas, who inherited the contracts when he arrived from Cincinnati in August, said administrators have held "several discussions" with the coaches but plan to wait until after the bowl to continue them. "I've been through a number of coaching changes, and I've never been in a situation where there's perceived to be a gray area where there really isn't," Thomas said. "We have a contract that's pretty clear, and we intend to honor that contract. We assume they'll honor it as well."

Late Thursday night, Gilbert told Mandel the four coaches were still waiting to hear back from the university before deciding whether to coach in the bowl game. Interim head coach Vic Koenning — who's already turned down an offer to stay on as defensive coordinator under incoming head coach Tim Beckman — pointedly declined comment on the drama.

With offensive coordinator Paul Petrino already back in the fold on his brother's staff at Arkansas, it's not really a subject Koenning (above) can afford to ignore: If four offensive assistants don't show for the game, the Illini will be down to three full-time assistants on defense — secondary coach Mike Gilhammer, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and outside linebackers coach Ron West — along with a pair of graduate assistants, none of whom has ever called offensive plays or is likely to be equipped to call them in a pinch. Then again, considering Illinois failed to top 17 points at any point in the six-game skid, maybe letting quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse wing it in the huddle is an experiment whose time has come.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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