Ron Zook needed to go. No one’s denying that.
But Zook’s time shouldn’t have run out on Sunday. It should have run out two years ago.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas’ move Sunday to fire Zook was like deciding to discard a carton milk that was well past its expiration date. Zook’s best days as Illinois’ coach had come and gone. Illinois’ epic collapse this season -- during which the Illini lost their final six games -- made it easier on Thomas in his first year on the job.
Firing Zook would have been the tougher but proper action following Illinois’ 2009 season. Former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther had the opportunity to do so, but he prolonged Zook’s tenure. Guenther left the decision up to Thomas when he retired prior to this school year.
In 2009, the program was two years beyond Zook’s greatest accomplishment -- the 2007 Rose Bowl season. The evidence was strong that the Illini hadn’t benefitted from their Rose Bowl appearance, and they weren’t about to either.
Illinois went 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten in 2008. A year later, the Illini were even worse, going 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten.
At that point, Zook had five seasons under his belt, the standard length of time a coach is given to prove himself these days. In five years, coaches have enough time to recruit their own players and fully implement their systems.
Zook had his five years, and there wasn’t many indications the program was succeeding or improving under him. Four of those campaigns ended with a losing record -- that Rose Bowl year being the lone exception. Illinois had gone 21-39 overall and 12-28 in the Big Ten during that period.
No one would have been surprised if 2009 was Zook’s final season. Plenty of athletic directors would have ended it then and looked for someone else to get the job done. It was certainly what a number of Illinois fans were after.
“There's a great deal of frustration obviously with the program at the moment," Guenther told reporters at the time. “We're still going to evaluate, but I think it's really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on a guy.”
Instead, Guenther retained Zook, fired the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators and went out and paid top dollar for two new coordinators. It was his way of hitting the reset button on Zook’s tenure.
Last season, Illinois again tasted moderate success. Having experienced three winning seasons since 2000, Illini fans were ecstatic about a somewhat positive year. The Illini went 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten and won the Texas Bowl against a Baylor team that struggled late in the season.
Still, the only way last season could have been deemed a true success if it was springboard for an even bigger 2011 season.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. After being set up with five homes games in their first six contests, in which they took care of business, they dropped their next six games. Illinois currently stands at 6-6 , hoping for a bowl invitation.
Which brings us to Sunday.
Although two years too late and under the wrong athletic director’s watch, Zook’s era was brought to a close, igniting some optimism in Champaign.
Thomas hired two successful football coaches -- Brian Kelly and Butch Jones -- during his time at Cincinnati. Thomas will now try to duplicate the feat and find himself a coach who can bring stability to an Illinois program that has never won bowl games in consecutive seasons.
Unlike his decision to let Zook go, this likely won’t be as easy.