Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Changing Of The Guard

The free fall of the Fighting Illini football ultimately resulted in the inevitable happening, and that was the firing of Ron Zook as head football coach. After starting the season 6-0, including narrow wins over Arizona State, Western Michigan, and Northwestern, the Illini have since dropped 6 straight games, the last setback in this streak being a 27-7 loss to last place Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. This was perhaps the final nail in Zook's coffin, as once again the Illini offense looked positively dreadful, leading new athletic director Mike Thomas to make the decision to remove Zook as Illini coach. So, during the Illini basketball game on Sunday against Chicago State (more on that game later), news began circulating throughout the Assembly Hall that Zook had indeed been fired and that Thomas would be addressing the media, thus making it official. Zook himself also made a statement regarding his firing, but wouldn't take any questions from the media in attendance. Thomas had said prior to the firing that he intended to assess the program and Zook's future after the regular season was over, and also that he would examine the "entire body of work", not just this season. Thomas mentioned that a change was necessary to move the program forward, and also said that if he was making a decision about character, then Zook would have had a lifetime contract. But, character doesn't win games or put fans in the seats, so the decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Zook compiled a 34-51 record over his 7 seasons in Champaign, including taking the Illini to 2 bowl games. The Illini are still bowl eligible this season as well, so you can actually say that Zook coached the team to 3 bowl games, although he won't be leading the team in this year's game. That honor falls upon defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who takes over as interim head coach while a replacement for Zook is found. Unlike his predecessor, Thomas plans on using a search committee to find the next coach. Former athletic director Ron Guenther commonly would be a search committee of one, thereby getting "his man" all by himself.

So, where does this leave the football program? As was previously mentioned, attendance is falling as quickly as the Illini's bowl placement. If there is one coach on the current staff that is capable of leading the team through this transition, Koenning is definitely the one for the job. You could argue that Petrino is the better fit, but just look at the offense over the past few weeks and all of a sudden he doesn't look so attractive in leading the team. Earlier in the season when speculation began that Zook might not be retained as coach, many people were wanting Petrino to be the successor, based solely on his name and reputation at Arkansas under older brother Bobby. That scenario doesn't look nearly as good now, and whether or not Koenning remains on the staff when the new coach is hired is anyone's guess right now. After all, he has head coaching experience at Wyoming and with so many jobs currently opening within the past week, would like to find somewhere to possibly coach again as well. Is is assumed that the Illini will be invited to a bowl game, but that is still uncertain where that destination will be. Stay tuned.

Much better news on the men's basketball front, with Bruce Weber's squad capturing the Cancun Challenge title with a 63-59 over in-state rival Illinois State. The Illini followed up that title with an easy win over Chicago State 90-43 on Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. The lopsided win gave Weber a chance to play some of his younger players for considerable minutes, and one freshman in particular, Myke Henry, took full advantage of it. Henry scored 14 points to lead the Illini after coming off of an ankle injury at the start of the season. Such a performance is refreshing to see for this group of players, mainly because they are so young. On Tuesday night, the Illini traveled to Maryland for their first true road game of the season in the Big 10/ACC Challenge. The Illini prevailed in that game 71-62, behind a strong game by senior transfer Sam Maniscalco, who had 24 points. Maniscalco was clutch down the stretch, as he connected for 5 of 8 shots from beyond the arc, as well as made all 7 of his free throws. Brandon Paul also had a good game for a change, scoring 17 points to help lead the Illini to the victory. For the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Illini have started the season 7-0, but have a challenging stretch of games coming up before the start of the new year. The first real test comes this Saturday when Gonzaga pays a visit to the Assembly Hall (2:15 pm CT, ESPN2).

News isn't as encouraging on the women's basketball front, as Jolette Law's squad has endured a rough stretch of games to start their season. The Illini are just 2-5 so far, and dropped both games at the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico, falling to Green Bay 82-62 and Arizona State in a close one, 51-50. The Illini knew this would be a tough hill to climb since Law lost one of her better players to an ACL tear before the season began. With Centrese McGee out, players like Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold will need to step up. The women will participate in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge on Thursday when they travel to Clemson, South Carolina to take on the Clemson Tigers at 6:00 pm. The Illini will not return to the Assembly Hall until December 28th. Not that it matters anyway, given the lack of fan support that they get.

Kevin Hambly's Illini spikers were given the opportunity to host first and second round matches in the NCAA volleyball tournament. The Illini will face Central Michigan on Friday night, and the winner of that match will then take on the winner of the other match, which is Marquette and Western Kentucky. The Illini are the overall #3 seed in the tournament, and will feed into the Gainesville, Florida regional, which will be played next weekend on the University of Florida campus. Looking ahead, as I tend to do far too often, the Illini could match up with #2 Nebraska in one of the final four matches, should they get that far.

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