Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Profiles of the nation's most embattled coaches.

Ron Zook, God bless him, will always be remembered for two things: one, being the unlucky duck tapped to immediately succeed Steve Spurrier at Florida, and two, being the coach that inspired the "Start a FireCoachX.com Web site the same day Coach X is hired" trend. After his brief and frequently embarrassing tenure at Gainesville -- remember his big confrontation at the Pike house? -- he was an odd choice indeed to take the reins of the long-suffering Illinois Fighting Illini. Yet after a pair of frustrating two-win seasons, he managed to get the Illini into the Rose Bowl. Since that achievement, though, the team is just 8-16 and giving every indication that they're headed right back into the depths of the Bad Old Days. The Illinois program may not have Florida-level expectations, but they're not about to let that happen if they can help it.

Why he was hired. The Zooker's record of 23-14 may not have cut the mustard at Florida, but after a 9-26 run over Ron Turner's last three years as coach, it probably looked a lot more enticing. And even while Zook's on-the-field results were causing acid reflux among the Gator faithful, he still managed to recruit at a breakneck pace -- though he wasn't the one responsible for landing Tim Tebow, he brought in most of the rest of the players who formed the core of Florida's 2006 title-winning team (plus a few from its 2008 championship squad).

The "Uh-oh" Moment. The Illini followed up their improbable 2007 Rose Bowl campaign with a 5-4 start to '08 -- hardly stellar, but not bad, either, for a team returning only 12 starters. On Nov. 8, they had what should've been a bowl-eligibility-clinching layup against Western Michigan on neutral ground at Detroit's Ford Field, but QB Juice Williams tossed INTs on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, helping WMU to a 20-7 halftime lead and, eventually, a 23-17 upset. The Illini got handled by Ohio State and Northwestern in their final two games to finish 5-7.

It was a disappointment they should've been able to bounce back from, but any ambitions in that direction were snuffed out when the Illini opened 2009 with a 37-9 pummeling from Missouri in which they were never really competitive. From there, it was a fairly predictable trip to 3-9, with back-to-back upsets over Michigan and Minnesota representing the Illini's only wins over D-IA competition.

Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. When you're five seasons into your current job, headlines involving the phrase "last-ditch rebuilding" are never a good sign. Nor is it particularly inspiring when the best you can say about your 70th-ranked recruiting class is that they're "going to surprise a lot of people" at some indeterminate future date. But when fan dissatisfaction over those developments neared fever pitch after National Signing Day, Zook capped off the bad-omen trifecta by pointing the finger at his own fans and assigning them part of the blame for his team's struggles. (Really, you'd think he'd be used to Web sites like this by now.)

Can this marriage be saved? Bizarrely enough, yes, says Joe Kutsunis of Hail to the Orange -- because they've probably got at least two more seasons of counseling to look forward to. Zook, apparently, is one of the few people in America whose job security has been increased by the bad economy:


What are Ron Zook's prospects for job security after 2010? Let's do a quick run down.

Back-to-back seasons without a bowl? Check.
 
Complete house cleaning of the coaching staff? Check.
 
Completely new offensive scheme? Check.
 
A schedule that is even more difficult than 2009? Check.
 
Calling out the fans in the newspaper for creating a negative environment for recruiting? Face. Palm. Check.
 
It is widely assumed that Zook must take the Illini to a bowl this year or he will be on the road to his next coaching gig. I am not so sure. The fact is, the University is in a financial crisis. The state is bankrupt and a significant portion of the funding has run dry. I know the Illinois athletic department is one of the few in the nation that actually profitable for its university, so taking on the combined costs of buying out Zook's rather expensive contract combined with the costs of hiring a whole new staff might be too much for the trustees to stomach. Cash would have to come from boosters, and that has been a rather shallow well as of late. No, I think this might be couple bad years of football that Illini fans will have to live with.

Approximate heat of seat. Let's say "hot stove:" Hot enough that you wouldn't want to touch it, but not hot enough to be lethal -- yet. We've already seen coaches at Colorado and Maryland survive embarrassing seasons solely because their schools couldn't afford to buy them out, so Zook's situation isn't exactly unique. But with absolutely nothing currently pointing toward a miraculous Illini turnaround, he may only be a dead man walking until the university can scrape together enough couch change to get rid of him.

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Matt Hinton is on vacation this week. Inform Doug Gillett what a poor substitute he is at dougie_doodle-at-yahoo.

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