Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas met with the media moments ago to discuss the school's dismissal of football coach Ron Zook earlier Sunday and the upcoming head-coaching search.
Some notes and observations:
Although Illinois' historic 0-6 finish sealed Zook's fate, Thomas reiterated that he looked at the program's overall body of work under Zook and cited the team's struggles in Big Ten play as a major reason for the change. Zook's teams went just 18-38 (.321) in league games and had just one winning season out of seven in Big Ten play (6-2 in 2007). Zook had a winning record against only one Big Ten team -- Indiana. "When you look at us, first of all in the conference, are we competitive?" Thomas said.
Thomas will lead the search committee, which also will include other university employees. He's not planning to hire a search firm at this time. It sounds like Jason Lener, who Thomas recently brought in from Miami (Ohio) as his new senior associate athletic director, will be very involved in the process.
Thomas noted that his track record shows he hires coaches with previous head-coaching experience, but he won't rule out those who don't. He wants someone who has a "holistic approach" to the job and can excel both on and off the field. Thomas would be wise not to exclude top Big Ten assistants like Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst from the process.
Thomas has said previously that hiring coaches is one of his strengths. He pointed to his time at Cincinnati, which had the worst facilities and resources of the Big East football programs, and his ability to bring in Brian Kelly. "At the University of Illinois, we should be thankful we have a lot to sell," he said. "... I have not seen anything that tells me we don't have what it takes as far as resources and infrastructure to have a successful program." He later added of the program, "I don't think this is a reclamation project."
Along those lines, it doesn't sound like salary should be too much of an obstacle for Illinois, both with the head-coaching hire and with the assistants. Illinois allowed Zook to bring pay his top assistants well the past two seasons, and the approach likely won't change under the next coach. "Salaries are going up all the time, and you need to keep up with that if you want to be competitive," Thomas said. Zook, by the way, will be paid $1.3 million during the final two years of his deal.
Thomas said he was "continually assessing and evaluating the process" but reached a final decision on Zook on Saturday night after the team's uninspiring loss to Minnesota. He met with Zook on Sunday morning to tell him the news, which the coach took well. "If it was about Ron the person, he certainly would have been worthy of a lifetime contract," said Thomas, who later called Zook "an A-plus person."
Attendance and fan enthusiasm definitely seemed to be factors in Thomas' decision. Illinois averaged 49,548 fans per game and eclipsed 60,000 just once, against Michigan. "It’s easy in some ways to use the economy as an excuse but a lot of schools are filling up the stadium," Thomas said. "This program, there needs to be a certain buzz around it."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will serve as head coach through Illinois' upcoming bowl game. The other assistants on Zook's staff will remain, Thomas said, although it doesn't sound like any will be in the mix for the permanent head-coaching job (no surprise). Thomas said the assistants' future with Illinois will be up to the new head coach.
Thomas plans to reach out to Illinois' verbal commits for the 2012 class and will honor their commitments to the team. Illinois has 14 players committed for the 2012 class.
Thomas plans on "moving quickly" with the search. Although university hiring policies could delay the process, Thomas wants to work fast and get a coach in place before Illinois' bowl game in late December or early January.
We'll be following the search throughout, and it will be interesting to see where Thomas turns. A few names to keep in mind: Chryst, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, Houston coach Kevin Sumlin and maybe, just maybe, pretty please, Mike Leach.