Cronin: Recruiting will be key in Illinois football revival
Tim Cronin email@example.com | (708) 633-5948 November 29, 2011 7:58PM
Former Illinois football coach Ron Zook. | AP file photo
Illinois football hasn’t had a coach with an over-.500 career record since John Mackovic, .633 (30-16-1) from 1988 through ’91. He replaced Mike White, whose .533 record from 1980 through ’87 was highlighted by the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in a generation and lowlighted by a transcript scandal that triggered NCAA probation. Before that, you have to go back to Ray Eliot (.532 from 1942 to ’59) to find an Illini mentor with a career record in the black.
Updated: January 1, 2012 8:20AM
Like a bad cold, another Illinois football coach has come and gone. Ron Zook, given the hook Sunday morning, joins Lou Tepper and Ron Turner in the dust bin of Fighting Illini coaches who have tried and failed to make the team a consistent winner.
Tepper was a defensive tactician who famously intoned, “The most important play in football is the punt,” and won 25 games in five seasons.
Turner’s eight yo-yo seasons included 10 wins and a Big Ten title in 2001, a spanking by LSU in the Sugar Bowl and just nine wins in his last three seasons.
Zook, who stumbled at his introduction by pronouncing the state as “Illi-noise,” didn’t build a consistent winner. Illinois went to the Rose Bowl in the 2007 season, and subsequently won 11 of 32 Big Ten games.
Under the aforementioned trio, the flailing Illini have finished over .500 just six times in the past 20 seasons. It’ll be seven in 20 if the Illini go to a bowl — maybe the vaunted New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette — and win it. In comparison, Northwestern has been over .500 seven times in that span, and it will be eight times — and four in a row under Orland Park native Pat Fitzgerald — if the Wildcats win their bowl game.
The common thread beyond the losses linking Tepper, Turner and Zook? Poor recruiting. Zook was hailed as a recruiting wizard, and indeed reopened doors in the Chicago area, starting with the Public League, that had long been closed, but couldn’t keep them open.
Consider Bolingbrook, one of the top area programs for the last 30 years and this year’s Class 8A champion. The number of Raiders on Illinois’ roster right now: one. And senior defensive lineman Wisdom Onyegbule was a walk-on.
“He was 6-foot-2, 215 coming out of here,” Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow said. “That’s just a little under what they were looking for. But he got up to 230-240, and got a scholarship.”
Ivlow said he didn’t see much of the Tepper or Turner staffs, but that Zook and his staff were more often in contact.
“In the past, before Zook, I’d have to grade the Illini with an F,” Ivlow said. “But we became one of Ron Zook’s favorite stops.”
That paid off when offensive lineman Robbie Bain, at 6-foot-3 and 267 pounds already Big Ten-ready, accepted Illinois’ offer. And he’s sticking to that commitment.
“As long as they honor the scholarship, he’s staying with Illinois,” Ivlow said.
But long term, Ivlow hasn’t seen Illinois wow area coaches.
“I don’t know if they’re winning Chicago,” Ivlow said. “When Notre Dame was on top in the 1980s, they won Chicago. They got the best recruits. Right now, Iowa is winning in Chicago.”
Crete-Monee coach Jerry Verde remembers when area standouts Simeon Rice and John Holecek were ticketed for Illinois early and made an impact in Champaign. Illini assistants have come to his school to look at tape in recent years, but Verde sees the new era of recruiting negatively affecting Illinois.
“Now, with Twitter and Facebook, it’s so easy to contact kids,” Verde said. “You can go on YouTube and see highlights. An SEC school has no problem recruiting Chicago. This isn’t the ’90s, when you needed to make personal contact and get a VHS tape in the mail.”
One ranking system, rivals.com, has the Hawkeyes with two of the top four Chicago-area recruits, including second-ranked Providence offensive lineman Ryan Ward, and three of the top 30. Illinois’ top commitment is Mount Carmel defensive tackle Vontrell Williams, ranked 16th. Bain, ranked 25th, is the other Illini prospect listed.
Indiana, of all schools, also has three prospects committed.
Illinois isn’t even tying in Chicago right now. Given that Illini athletic director Mike Thomas, like Ron Guenther before him, wants to put the Illini in the forefront north of Interstate 80, he needs his coaches to recruit the metro area hard. That means hiring someone with a track record and a big name to bring the football program out of the background. Mike Leach comes to mind.
Otherwise, Illinois will remain just another school in the middle of the Chicago pack, buried by the pro teams, Northwestern and Notre Dame.