November 15, 2011
On Oct. 15, Illinois welcomed Ohio State to Champaign with a 6-0 record, a top-20 ranking, bowl eligibility in the bag and no sign of the "hot seat" chatter that seems to hover over Ron Zook's tenure like a perennial fog. On Nov. 15, the Illini are 6-4, coming off their most lopsided loss of the season and likely heading for their fifth consecutive defeat Saturday as 14-point underdogs against Wisconsin. Where the air had been briefly cleared, you could cut the tension over Zook's future with a knife (or a tomahawk, in a pinch).
The speculation is so thick this week — just as it's been every November for the last four years — that Zook appears to have developed an allergy to it. That's the best explanation for why he warned reporters at the top of his weekly press conference this morning that he didn't plan to hang around to field questions about his job status, and then kept his promise when one of them inevitably asked about his job status. A brief transcript:
Zook: I want to make one thing clear before we get going here. This thing's about our football team, it's about the team we're playing, about the things going on with our football team. It's not about me. It's not about my future. I think our fans and I think our players deserve that. And if you feel compelled to talk about that then my part will be over with.
[Several minutes later…]
Reporter: From a football perspective, do you talk to them about… so it doesn't become a distraction, rumors about you or the off-the-field stuff? Does it, you know, just as far as keeping it from being a distraction?
Zook: You just couldn't let it go, could you, Shannon? Alright, thank ya. [Exit stage right]
And there's your press conference. (The questioner, for the record, was Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune.) The exchange came less than 24 hours after Zook took on another reporter asking about his job on Monday night, who at least managed to hold Zook in place long enough to ask a followup question. Answer-wise, he didn't fare much better: "This is not the time to get into all that."
When is the time? Per first-year athletic director Mike Thomas, it's at the end of the season, at the earliest. If Illinois drops its last two (against Wisconsin on Saturday and at lowly Minnesota on Nov. 26) to go out on a six-game skid to .500, Thomas will almost certainly have seen enough. If the Illini win either of those games to get to seven wins — and potentially eight with a win the bowl game, one shy of Zook's best season in 2007 — it could conceivably be enough to pull his thoroughly singed hide from the fire again.
With a new boss, a manageable buyout and enough mediocrity on file to bring down the curtain at any time, though, you can see why Zook tends to bristle a bit this time of year. If he's still around by then, he's a much nicer guy in March, really. Just don't say anything negative about his recruiting class.