Zook, Illini: Don’t drop the ball when expectations are high

By Steve Contorno

Ron Zook, your table is waiting.

Sorry, we weren’t able to get you a seat near the front where you can smell the roses. That’s been reserved for Lloyd Carr and his free ride – Mike Hart and Chad Henne.

And I apologize, but you won’t be sitting anywhere close to Bret Bielema. He’s so high up on his “Hill” he won’t even be able to see you.

Oh, and JoePa got his special seat in the handicapped-but-feisty section.

But don’t worry. You won’t be near the back, begging for table scraps like Pat Fitzgerald and his cuddly Wildkittens.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

In fact, Mr. Zook, as long as there hasn’t been a mistake, you should be right in the middle of the action.

Finally, after five years of gutterball, it’s time to go bowling. The pieces are in place. The planets are aligned. The schedule is favorable-ish. There’s just something about this season that seems beautifully optimistic.

Of course, optimism is one thing. Acting upon the opportunity at hand is why God made fall Saturdays all about college football. There’s something about watching a team progress through a season, knowing what each victory can mean, that makes every snap critical in ways so dissimilar to the NFL.

Unfortunately for Zook, critics say game management isn’t his strong point.

Nine months out of the year, you can argue there isn’t a better coach in all of football than Zook. He’s a resilient recruiter and has wowed the nation with the classes he’s been able to pull in.

But for the other three months, the ones that determine if a program will succeed or fail, Zook has been a little suspect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s lost us games, considering E.B. Halsey was on both of his previous two teams, but there have been times when you scratch your head at a few of his decisions and say, “Really, Zooky?” Like how his clock management in the two-minute offense makes it seem like he just wings it. Or when he chooses to go for two in situations when it’s wildly unnecessary. Or how it’s been claimed that Natty Light is his favorite beer. These kinds of decisions make him susceptible to criticism.

Then again, he hasn’t heard much criticism in his first two seasons. His first team was so bad not even Robert Zuppke himself could have revived it. But last year’s team, even though it matched the previous team’s victory total, was infinitely better than 2005, thanks mostly to the players Zook brought in. And I suspect the same this year. There are better athletes, most of the leftover dead weight is gone, and the ones still here have been coached up to a new level. All that should easily equal more victories in 2007.

And if it doesn’t, is that Zook’s fault?

I don’t think there will be anyone else to blame if this year’s team doesn’t at least win five games (and it should win six). The third year for coaches is supposed to be the year you start to see results in the standings. At the same time, this program has a rich history of disappointment, and it’s hard to change a losing culture after so long. You’d hate to not give Zook a fair chance to see what he can do with the players he brought in, considering how he was wrongfully outed from Florida.

But walking by a revamped Memorial Stadium and listening to fans talk about this team, there is so much excitement and anticipation, you would think it was Ann Arbor or Columbus. This town is ready for winning. It’s ready for bowl games. It’s ready to challenge the perennial powerhouses and turn heads.

Will Zook sit down at the right table?