Illinois coach Ron Zook will laugh, smile, hi-five anyone wearing orange, hug his players and family countless times and enjoy himself to the max Wednesday night after his Illini defeated Baylor 38-14 in the Texas Bowl.
He should. He deserves it. Illinois dominated the Bears from opening kickoff to the final whistle. Zook put together a great game plan, got his players ready, and they executed it to perfection.
That is today. The question is what does tomorrow bring?
While Wednesday couldn’t have been better for Zook and the Illini, one day unfortunately doesn’t erase a season -- or for that matter six seasons. Amidst the Gatorade being poured over Zook’s head, players dancing in celebration and the band loudly playing the school’s fight song following Illinois’ win, the dark cloud of Zook’s uncertain future still hung over the Illini on Wednesday.
Does the bowl win save Zook’s job?
It’s tough to say.
Here are some things to ponder:
Zook has coached Illinois for six seasons and has compiled a 28-45 overall record and a 16-32 Big Ten record.
The Illini have had two winning season under Zook. This year’s 7-6 one and they went 9-4 in 2007.
Zook has taken Illinois to two bowl games. In 2007, Illinois reached the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. On Wednesday, the Illinois won the Texas Bowl. Zook did provide the Illini with their first bowl victory since 1999.
Zook was thought to have secured his job when Illinois opened this season off 5-3, which included a road win over Penn State and narrow losses to Missouri and Ohio State. But people began calling for his head again after Illinois lost 38-34 to Minnesota in Champaign on Nov. 13. The Gophers had lost their previous nine games. Illinois closed out the regular season losing three of its last four games before winning Wednesday.
How much of Illinois’ rise this season was Zook’s doing and how much was it the work of first-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning? Zook was forced to clean house after last season’s 3-9 mark, and Petrino and Koenning, two successful coordinators, were brought in and paid top dollar. Both are among the highest paid coordinators in the Big Ten with Petrino making $475,250 and Koenning getting $325,120. Could one of them be Zook’s successor? Could that have been the plan from the start?
However Illinois has played, Zook has continued to bring in top recruits. Zook has done a good job of securing the state’s best players and still is attracting players from Florida and elsewhere. He already has 25 commitments for the Class of 2011. He can sell Illinois at all times.
Illinois could be one of the Big Ten’s top teams next year. The Illini will return their starting quarterback, possibly their star running back and a whole lot more on both sides of the ball. Zook did play a lot of freshmen and underclassmen this season. Does everyone stay if Zook is canned? Could Wednesday be just the start of something special in 2011?
These are all questions Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther and the school’s administrators will have to answer soon. They can’t sit on this too long.
Today, though, everyone, including Zook, should enjoy themselves. Days like this haven’t often come around for the program.