The best metaphor for Ron Zook's tenure at Illinois is a roller coaster — a sprawling, poorly constructed ride that interrupts long stretches of monotony with seemingly random dips and loops that fill patrons with equal parts exhilaration and terror. But at times, it was also one of minor miracles.
How else to account for his touted recruiting classes amid losing records? How else to account for the inexplicable Rose Bowl campaign in 2007, after the Illini had managed a single conference win in Zook's first two seasons? And how else to account for the sheer longevity of a coach whose program consistently hovered in the bottom reaches of the conference before his new boss finally decided to pull the plug this morning?
Of the ten other Big Ten coaches on the job when Zook arrived in 2005, he survived nine of them. He outlasted Jim Tressel at Ohio State. He outlasted Joe Paterno at Penn State and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. He outlasted the first Big Ten coach he ever beat, John L. Smith at Michigan State. He outlasted Lloyd Carr and his successor at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez. He outlasted Glenn Mason and his successor at Minnesota, Tim Brewster. He outlasted his own successor at Florida, Urban Meyer. If Nebraska had been in the league then, he would have outlasted the head 'Husker in 2005, Bill Callahan, who'd been hired the year before. The only Big Ten coach who saw Zook come into the conference seven years ago and is still around to see him go today is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
And yet, there was never anything under Zook's regime resembling stability. He spent the entire back half of his tenure on one of the hottest seats in America, barely surviving calls for his head in 2008, 2009 and 2010. After the schizophrenic breakthrough in his third season, the star quarterback of the Rose Bowl run, Juice Williams, regressed over his final two years and was eventually benched in the midst of a 3-9 debacle in 2009. The most talented player of the Zook era, NFL-bound wide receiver Arrelious Benn, was practically missing in action that season. He lost key assistants in consecutive seasons in 2008-09, after offensive coordinator Mike Locksley left for a doomed stint as New Mexico's head coach and Zook was forced to replace both of his coordinators a year later as a condition of his return/
This season, the Illini ripped off a 6-0 start that pushed them to No. 16 in the polls and secured bowl-eligibility by mid-October, then proceeded to drop their next six to narrowly avoid a winning record. Saturday's 27-7 collapse at Minnesota — a team that has inspired comparisons to the worst teams in Big Ten history — was the anvil that broke the camel's back for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas. But for anyone who'd followed the Illini over the course of Zook's administration, it was par for the course.
In seven years, Illinois was 18-38 in Big Ten games, finished either in last place or within a game of last place three times and produced one (1) winning record in conference play, in 2007. If any bowl will have them this year — not a foregone conclusion, given the losing streak and nine other eligible teams in the Big Ten for eight automatic tie-ins — it will be the Illini's first back-to-back bowl bids since 1991-92, and give them a shot at their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90. In that context, maybe the Illlinois job is a perpetual gateway to oblivion and Zook demonstrated unusual hustle and savvy in fending off the inevitable for so long. But good luck finding two longtime fans willing to back you up on that.