Illinois has done the expected by firing Ron Zook after a historic collapse this season. The next step will be the hard one for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.
Zook finishes his Illini career at 34-51, though there were some successes. He led the program to the 2008 Rose Bowl, where it was blown out by USC. Illinois is bowl eligible at 6-6 this season, and if the team is selected for the postseason, that would mark the first back-to-back bowl years since 1991-92.
But Zook also had four losing seasons out of seven and was nearly fired in 2009. Instead, he was allowed to return with two new coordinators -- Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense. That worked for a 7-6 record and Texas Bowl win over Baylor last year, and the Illini started this year 6-0 and ranked in the top 20.
That only set the stage, however, for an palindromic 0-6 finish in which the team often looked lost on offense and special teams, the latter of which was supposed to be Zook's area of expertise. The season ended with a 27-7 loss to Legends Division cellar-dweller Minnesota in which Illinois mustered only one first down in the entire first half.
“I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."
A change was necessary, since Zook had never shown the ability to consistently compete at a high level, either in Champaign or at his previous head-coaching stop at Florida. His job status was hovering over the program and fans had long since lost faith in his ability to get the job done. It's better to do this now and get started on the coaching search. Koenning will serve as interim coach now and through a possible bowl game, and the players will somehow have to regroup after the deflating losing streak and this transition.
Meanwhile, Thomas now is under the gun to bring a winner to Illinois. And that earlier stat about the back-to-back bowl appearances illustrates just how hard it's been for anyone to consistently deliver. Thomas has already hired one big-time winner, bringing Brian Kelly aboard at Cincinnati and seeing that team make consecutive BCS bowl appearances. He hired Butch Jones to succeed Kelly, and Jones has the Bearcats on the verge of a Big East championship this year in his second season.
Thomas will try to do the same with the Illini, who don't have it easy in trying to battle Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The program got as far as it was going to go under Zook. Can Thomas find somebody to take it farther?