When the bowl matchups were announced earlier this month, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl looked like a prime candidate for the worst matchup of them all.
The New Year's Eve game features 6-6 Illinois, riding a six-game losing streak, against 6-7 UCLA, given an NCAA waiver to compete despite a losing record. Both schools fired their coaches. Both are playing under interim leaders.
Since then, the bowl has defied the odds and somehow gotten worse. UCLA has four players ineligible for the game, including backup quarterback Richard Brehaut. Illinois has two players ineligible for the game, including leading rusher Jason Ford.
Now comes news of a rather contentious contract dispute between several Illinois assistants and the school administration.
In January 2010, several new assistants were hired by then-coach Ron Zook and given two-year contracts that would roll over each year, documents obtained by Yahoo! Sports show. Two-year deals for assistants are considered a luxury of stability, and initial agreements were signed. But during the summer of 2010, shortly before Illinois opened camp, those assistants were given a formal contract to sign that contained a clause that wasn't in the original agreement.
It stated: “In any Contract year ending after January 31, 2011, either party may terminate this Contract effective at the end of the Contract year by giving written notice of termination to the other party no later than 60 days prior to January 31 of the current contract year.”
Some of the Illinois assistants signed the formal contract without checking the fine print to make sure it squared with what they were told when they first were brought onboard at the school. But even if they had balked at the clause, their options were limited at that point – they had arrived at Illinois seven months before and there were no other jobs available.
After the 2010 season – a successful one by Illinois standards, ending with a 7-6 record and a Texas Bowl blowout of Baylor – a source close to the assistants said they were assured by Zook and then-athletic director Ron Guenther that their two-year deals rolled over. That helped curb interest in job-shopping last offseason, even though some had received inquiries about going elsewhere. And even during a steadily more disappointing 2011 season, the source said the coaches were told by Zook that they had contractual security heading into 2012.
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That assurance proved wrong when they – along with Zook – were given termination notices from the school in recent weeks. Since then, the coaches have been battling the school, at first on their own, then through lawyers. There was even a brief concern that the affected assistants would quit before the bowl, but those fears have been allayed even if the hard feelings have not.
New athletic director Mike Thomas, who inherited the contract situation, acknowledged "a disconnect" between the school and the assistants. But Thomas, who replaced the retired Guenther in August, has drawn a hard line.
"We're living by the language of the contract that was signed by those coaches," Thomas told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. "We basically told the coaches that."
A source close to the affected assistants acknowledged that their case was weakened by having signed the contracts. But just when you thought Illinois couldn't find another negative issue heading into this bowl game, it has one: a dissatisfied and distracted lame-duck coaching staff.
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