First Priorities for the New Illinois Football Coach

First Priorities for the New Illinois Football Coach

illini logo

Ron Zook is gone. However, he was only one part of a larger college football problem in Champaign-Urbana. Zook “made history,” by becoming the first coach in FBS history to “accomplish” this feat- starting 6-0, finishing 6-6. But Zook wasn’t that much worse than Lou Tepper or Ron Zook, they all won only about a 1/3 of their Big Ten games.

So this needs to be a revolutionary hire for Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas. It needs to be a total sea change for Illini football; here’s a few hows and whys.

-100% Culture Change

Thomas said “why can’t we compete for Big Ten championships every year?” I agree. Remember the 2001 marketing slogan “Why not Illinois?” It worked as the team finished 10-2, with the mantra that implied “we’re good at football, even though we’re not supposed to be/you don’t think we will be.” Thomas brought Cincinnati up by making the right hire in Brian Kelly; he needs a similar bulls-eye here. (What happened to Cincy after Kelly left, at Notre Dame with Kelly right now is not relevant to this discussion).

Illini critics claim Thomas is dreaming big with lofty expectations. I disagree- you have top notch facilities, you just renovated/upgraded the stadium, and you play in a big boy conference. If the Iowa Hawkeyes can do it, so can the Illini. Zook had a winning record vs. one conference team- Indiana. From now on that needs to be thought of for what it is PATHETIC. No more excuses.

-Follow lead of Michigan State, Cincinnati

Cincinnati is a basketball school that went to BCS bowls under the Thomas/Kelly regime. Michigan State is a hoops school that broke the school record for wins last season, and is poised to at least tie if not break that record again this year. Maybe MSU Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi needs to be the front-runner. Get that magic to rub off in Champaign. His defense is third in the nation behind only LSU and Alabama. In addition to his Big Ten ties, he’s also worked under Thomas (Defensive Coordinator 2004-06 in Cincinnati) and in the state of Illinois (NIU Linebackers coach 2002-04)

-Get a complete guy

Ron Turner was a pathetic joke and recruiting. He cared so little about the exercise that he didn’t even want to leave the state; many times he didn’t even want to leave the county. That’s why Illinois had D-2, D-3 level talent on defense in the mid 2000s. Zook is known as a great recruiter, and for some of his time in Champaign he displayed that. Of course, Xs and Os don’t exist in his alphabet, and that reared it’s ugly head too often. Thomas NEEDS to hire the complete package. Illini nation often says the same thing in college basketball, Bill Self could recruit, can’t coach; Bruce Weber can’t recruit, good coach. The last couple years have actually proven all four components of that theory wrong to some degree.

-Start maximizing the talent you get/attract

Notice all the NFL guys who came form Illinois? Believe it or not, the Illini have as many guys in the pros now as Wisconsin. So why are the Illini so bad all the time? Because those NFL guys under-perform in C-U. Look at Zook’s four marquee recruits: Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Vontae Davis, Martez Wilson. All four had at least one poor season in college, and all of them failed to live up to the billing. Juice was so bad his senior year that he didn’t even make it to the league.

Illinois is the 5th most populous state. Chicago has some great athletes in the public league. The Chicago suburbs and surrounding countryside has so much football talent, it’s pathetic Illinois hasn’t capitalized on it. Such a fertile recruiting background, right in their backyard. And Illinois has failed to both keep talent in state; and develop the talent further beyond. The new guy must be able to do all these things.

-So who’s coming?

Mike Leach- probably not. Kevin Sumlin hasn’t been contacted; so he’s said thus far. There’s so much competition this year with so many open jobs. I like Narduzzi as the favorite, but Toledo head man Tim Beckman and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano are in the mix too.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.


Leave a comment
  • I agree with a lot of what you said. Your first point is unbelievably important; culture change can make a world of difference (95 NU Wildcats “Expect Victory!”). But there is only so much you can do with slogans and attitude. Although culture is most important, maximizing the talent is where it starts.
    Iowa can do it because Kirk Ferentz is the best coach in the Big Ten. He makes the most of what he has to work with. So does Dantonio, Fitzgerald, and Bielema. Winning with what they have has to be where they start. Recruiting better players will come as a result of that.
    Every Big Ten school has great facilities (except for Northwestern) so I really don’t see that as an advantage for the Illini. As far as the Chicago area players go…Chicago is very close to Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Some may not be as close as Illinois, but I’d take the Big House over Memorial Stadium if it’s only an extra hour by car. Even the lesser recruits may find a Northern Illinois or Ball State more appealing if they can get solid play time earlier than they would at Illinois.
    The new guy doesn’t have to be able to do all the things you mentioned, he only has to do two; maximize the talent he has (along with instilling a new culture) and get W’s. Better recruits will come in time. They don’t need the best guy, they need the right guy.
    Like you, I like Sumlin as a possibility. Beckman and Schiano would also be nice hires.

  • They're really starting to think Sumlin is going to happen. I'm guessing we'll hear either way in a couple days. I also like Narduzzi, if Sumlin falls though

Leave a comment