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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wanted: Football Coach

I forgot how much fun trying to hire a football coach can be. In the days since Ron Zook was fired as Illini head football coach, there has been much speculation on who his replacement will be. Names have surfaced, rumors have spread, but so far, nobody has emerged as the clear-cut favorite. Sure, there have been names that made sense, but no one has made the commitment and signed on the dotted line yet. First there was Mike Leach, then Kevin Sumlin, and now the focus has shifted to Tim Beckman of Toledo. The only one that truly know what is going on is athletic director Mike Thomas, and he's not saying anything to anyone. A lot of rumors have been flying around as well about Thomas' whereabouts the past week during this search, but who know how credible this information is. One thing is clear: whoever comes into the job will need to build on what Zook started. It is fair to say that Zook left the program much better than he inherited it, but there is still a long way to go in order to make the Illinois program a consistent winner. Does anybody want this job? I begin to wonder as name after name appears to turn down the job for various reasons. Money is definitely a key issue, and I'm not sure that Illinois cannot afford another buyout of a football coach, since the state has multiple issues of their own outside of sports. With the uncertainty of who the new coach will be, it remains to be seen who of the current coaches will be on staff for the upcoming bowl game.

Interim head coach Vic Koenning spoke to the media, as well as Thomas to discuss the Illini's bowl invitation, which was determined on Sunday night. The Illini were selected to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, California on New Year's Eve. Their opponent will be UCLA, who also is in search of a head coach, since Rick Neuheisel was fired after the season. The Bruins are 6-7 on the season, which means that the loser of this bowl game will end the season with a losing record. Koenning really impressed me at the press conference by speaking from the heart instead of sounding like Zook has over the past few years. Koenning stated that if guys get jobs, they need to go to them, especially if they are needed for recruiting. He also expressed that he is looking, and may not even be around to coach the Illini in the bowl if he gets a job elsewhere. So much uncertainty remains, but someone will undoubtedly take the reins if Koenning cannot. One coach has already left the program, that being Paul Petrino, who rejoined his brother Bobby in Arkansas. Petrino will be the offensive coordinator and also coach quarterbacks. Petrino had some interesting comments upon leaving, and some of them could even be translated as a slam on Zook himself. So, who knows what the next three weeks will hold for the Illini football program as they practice for the bowl game. Stay tuned.

The Fighting Illini men's basketball team is coming off a big win over Gonzaga that has launched them into the Top 25 for the first time this season. The Illini took down the Bulldogs 82-75 last Saturday at the Assembly Hall before a national television audience, and looked good doing so. Meyers Leonard definitely has evolved into a formidable post player, and he took full advantage of going up against Gonzaga's big man Robert Sacre. The main question was whether or not the Illini could sustain that momentum coming off the big win into their next game, which was also at home against St. Bonaventure. Based on the way this game went, I would say that the Illini failed the test. The Bonnies were a dangerous team coming in, as the Illini found out early. St. Bonaventure shut down the inside game of the Illini, forcing them to rely on the long range jumper. The Bonnies had a nine point lead with five minutes to play, and the situation looked very bleak for the Illini. Then, Brandon Paul showed up and willed his team to one of the more improbable comebacks in recent memory, resulting in a gutty, 48-43 victory. Paul finished the game with 17 points, including several key shots down the stretch. When nobody else would venture inside the lane, Paul dared to try, and gave the Illini the spark they needed. The win over the Bonnies keeps the Illini in the rankings for at least one more week, and gives them a record of 9-0, their best start to a season since the 2005-06 season. The Illini are in final exam mode right now, but get back into action on Sunday night when they welcome the Coppin State Eagles to the Assembly Hall (7:00 pm CT, ESPNU). Coppin State is 3-4 on the season, but as the football team found out, you don't overlook anyone, especially when you are unbeaten.

Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini women's volleyball team passed its first postseason test last weekend at Huff Hall, downing both Central Michigan and Marquette 3 games to none. The Illini, who garnered the overall #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, now will head to Gainesville, Florida to play in the regional with Florida, Ohio State and Michigan. The Illini will face the Buckeyes for the third time this season, with the Illini winning both matches during the regular season. The Illini defeated the Buckeyes in straight sets in Columbus, while taking them down in 4 games in Champaign. This is also the third time that the Illini and the Buckeyes have met in the NCAA Tournament, the last time in the first round at Huff Hall back in 1992. The Illini will play at 4:00 pm CT on Friday, with the winner facing the winner of the Michigan-Florida match at 6:00 pm CT on Saturday. The Friday matches will be streamed on, with the final being on ESPNU on Saturday evening.

After losing 5 of the their first 8 games of the season, Jolette Law's women's basketball team is on a two-game winning streak, the latest being a 66-56 win over Illinois State in Normal on Wednesday evening. Freshman Ivory Crawford netted a career high 16 points to lead the Illini to the victory. The women have been away from the Assembly Hall for quite a while, and that hiatus will continue, at least for the next couple weeks. The next game for the women takes place next Saturday (December 17), when they battle Texas Tech at the United Center (1:00 PM, CT, BTN). That game is the front end of a men's and women's doubleheader the week before the Christmas holiday.

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