MnB B1G Preview: Illinois and the search for a steady hand

(A quick reminder before we get started, SBN has a great Illinois site in Hail to the Orange that I suggest you check out this week and beyond.)

This week in the Maize n Brew Big Ten Preview series we travel down to the land of Lincoln to look at one of the most underachieving programs in the Big Ten over the last decade. The Illinois Fighting Illini have run the gamut from last place finishes to BCS Bowls and back -- literally, both of Illinois' last two coaches have a BCS Bowl and an 0-8 Big Ten season to their name to give you an idea of just how wildly up and down things have been -- and most frustratingly there has been little or no logical progression between seasons. High expectations have routinely been met with utter failure while teams written off have vastly exceeded what was expected of them. It is enough to make you imagine that Illinois fans would settle simply for consistency rather than the recent string of cardiac arrest inducing swings in momentum..

Consistency isn't a word that you would use to describe the tenure of Ron Zook, who may be the most beloved former coach in the Big Ten for any number of reasons -- a few of which are directly related to his ability to lose games in spectacular fashion. While the rest of the conference will miss Ron Zook, Illinois fans will not. The man was a whirlwind of poor game day decisions and a prodigious squanderer of talent.

Zook rode into Champaign hot on the heels of a disappointing three year tenure at Florida where he was set up to fail (you try following the most successful coach in school history who also happens to be one of the school's Heisman winning quarterbacks as well). Zook stocked the Gator roster with high level talent and then did just enough with all of it to sneak into bowl games. While the Gators won 60 percent of their games under Zook and went to three bowls, it was far less success than Florida fans were used to. Zook would be unceremoniously canned at the end of the season and replaced by the up and coming Urban Meyer, who quickly turned around the floundering Gators and won a BCS title in year two with Zook's recruits.

How Ron Zook turned a mediocre career at Florida into another full time coaching job on the BCS level is up for some debate, but the Zooker did have a few things going for him. First, Ron Zook is a very capable recruiter that can thrive if given access to a rich talent base (say, the state of Florida or the city of Chicago). While reeling in Juice Williams doesn't sound like a tall task in hindsight, there was a time that the quarterback was considered one of the top player at his position coming out of high school.

Second, Zook, like last week's punching bag Tim Brewster, looks and sounds the part of head coach and leader of young men. He is tall, handsome, and looks like the guy Hollywood would cast in some cheap rip off of Remember the Titans (or in the shoddy remake of the original meant to cash in on the nostalgia for the first movie and most likely produced by someone who is just awful; but I digress...).

Whatever happened to get Ron Zook the job, he actually made the most of the opportunity for a while. Illinois previous coach, Ron Turner, had taken the team to a Rose Bowl three years earlier before bottoming out with a two year record of 4-19 that led to his eventual firing. Zook came in and significantly upgraded the talent while struggling through back to back two-win seasons. Year three would be when everything clicked. Illinois won nine games and finished second in the Big Ten earning a Rose Bowl invite as Ohio State headed to the BCS title game to further propagate the myth that the Big Ten is slow and inferior play LSU.

If you took a picture of Ron Zook on the sidelines of the Rose Bowl on January 1st, 2008 you would capture the coach at his zenith. Illinois' seven win improvement was the most of any Div. I team, and it would prove to be a season of successes that would resonate off the field as well, netting Zook a contract extension and a Big Ten Coach of the Year award. He had cleaned up a messy Illinois program, stocked it with high level talent, and the team seemed poised to stay at the top of the Big Ten. His failures at Florida were now a thing of the past; Ron Zook was a successful coach.

However, it wouldn't be a zenith without a precipitous fall from grace.

With his team primed to challenge year in and year out for the Big Ten title on the back of an impressive string of recruiting classes, Ron Zook's Illinois teams wouldn't finish with a regular season record above .500 over the next four years. He would coach in one more bowl game -- the Texas Bowl which netted him his best season and the only seven win season of his final four years. This failure would lead to a clean sweep of coordinators in 2009 (enter Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense) and eventually claim Zook's job for good after seven seasons.

Perhaps then, the 2011 collapse is a fitting tribute to coach Zook. Illinois rode its talented offense and strong defense to a hot six-win start. It looked like Ron Zook may have finally gotten control once more with the help of two excellent coordiantors. Then the wheels came flying off, sending the whole thing careening into a ditch. The six game losing streak held everything: disappointing blowouts, blown leads, and regrettable upsets. Think of it as a "Best of Ron Zook" compilation CD but instead of bad pop music you just get hours of bloggers trying to describe how they feel but only being able to summon the words "dead inside."

--

This is the point during the last two weeks where I have laid out as best I can the underlying problem confronting the team at hand. Indiana was the doormat. A team that hasn't ever been any good and doesn't have the collective football mentality that helps drive a winning culture. If Indiana is to become a football power, or even a solid program capable of stringing together seven and eight win seasons, it will be built from the ground up on the wilted husks of failures past.

Minnesota is a program with the football mentality, born out of years of success early on in college football history, but without any recent success to build on. Even Glen Mason, the most successful coach the school has had in the past 40 years was just a .500 coach when all was said and done. There were no Big Ten championships to build on and the Rose Bowl is all but a distant memory. Minnesota is the northern outpost in a Big Ten conference that thrives on Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois talent. Minnesota's best case scenario is becoming another Iowa (a team in a precarious position itself).

That is to say, you can look at both programs and see fairly clearly the obstacles standing in the way of success. Indiana has always been bad and Minnesota hasn't been much better. You don't expect these programs to be at the top because life just ain't fair.

Illinois's problem, however, isn't that the team hasn't been any good, or doesn't have access to the kind of talent that the rest of the conference has. Illinois is well suited to be a strong football program because of its close proximity to Chicago. Two Rose Bowl trips in the past 11 years go a long way toward proving that.

Illinois's problem is one, as I said before, of consistency. Winning doesn't develop overnight, and while a winning culture is capable of sustain itself to a degree, there still needs to be someone capable of steering the ship through rough waters. The very best coaches in the history of the game are considered to be such as much for what they were able to do in down years and in poor circumstances as for what their best teams accomplished. Not every team is necessarily going to be conference championship caliber, but finding a way to keep those teams pushing forward for eight and nine wins instead of five or six is the ultimate key to long term success.

Even the most storied brands in college football can lose their way. Michigan's unfortunate dalliance with Rich Rodriguez ended up a flaming crater where a defense used to stand. Texas had an offensive implosion at the hands of Greg Davis. Florida regressed under Urban Meyer and then Will Muschamp after a great deal of talent exited Gainsville. Ohio State lost its hall of fame level coach and with it an unquestioned starter at quarterback and the Buckeyes struggled to bowl eligibility. Penn State spent the beginning of last decade flirting with bowl-less seasons. USC, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida State have all faltered as well. What is the common cause? A failure at the top for one reason or another.

I'm not here to tell you that Illinois is a sleeping giant ready to retake the Big Ten. The fact of the matter is Illinois football was disappointing people long before Rons Turner or Zook set foot on campus.

What I do believe is that at a school like Illinois there is more hope than programs like Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern. Illinois is in a better position to find long term success, and it has found enough moments of success recently to allay any doubts about the programs viability (unlike somewhere like Indiana where a Rose Bowl exists as a plausible outcome the same way my going on a date Kate Upton does: I know it is possible, but I'd be a fool to expect it given what I know about the world and my place in it as a mildly successful blogger and not a rapper or a pro athlete). It will take solid recruiting and coaching of course, but past that it is going to require a steady hand. Someone to lead the charge, steer the ship when the waters get rough, and bring about the kind of consistency that has been lacking for all these many years.

Is Tim Beckman the answer? He certainly has a better head coaching track record than either Zook or Turner before him. Beckman built Toledo back into a bowl team and a MAC championship challenger. He has roots in the Big Ten and is a defensive guy (coordinator at Bowling Green and Oklahoma State and CB coach at OSU) but still managed to oversee a Toledo squad that had an impressive offense (even relative to MAC standards). The resume is there, but the stage is bigger and history isn't on his side.

Illinois fans can do nothing but hope now. The program has been placed in new hands and the future is once again bright...at least until it isn't anymore. The last decade is a carnival ride Illinois fans want to get off. Hopefully this is the point at which it ends and the Illini can begin moving forward once again.

One thing is certain: the whirling Ron Zook tea-cup ride of horrible losses and disappointments is over. At least Illinois fans can be thankful for that.

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