Chicago Sun-Times
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Recently in Ron Zook Category

A few more thoughts on Zook ``walking out'' of his Tuesday press conference, after watching him get carved up on every TV sports/newscast I saw last night. . . 
* Big mistake to say he'd leave if anybody asked about his hot seat. He put himself in a lose-lose. He couldn't answer without backing down, and when he left, he'd set himself up for what happened.
The coaches' PR manual says, when a question like that comes up, you smile and say a few words about ``controlling what we can control.''
He'd already given answers about dealing with the distractions of the losing streak and the Trulon Henry shooting--answers that applied to his job situation as well. Just glaze over and do it again; that's what this media stuff is.
* By doing it this way, he put the focus on the exact place where he didn't want it. It was  just the kind of miscalculation in judgment that the anti-Zook crowd gobbles up during games.
* Not proud to be a member of the media when we're piling onto a guy who's worried about his job, who's worried about his team blowing up after 100 kids and a coaching staff have worked so hard, who's worried about the aftermath of a shooting. But we all have jobs to do. That's why I wrote a piece--when Illinois was 6-1--that a coaching change was possible. 
* Now, more than ever, it's clear that Illinois is pointing toward a coaching change.
Here's that Oct. 20 column. . . 

October 20, 2011 Thursday
Zook, Illini at crossroads; 
Purdue game looms large for coach who still has his critics despite team's 6-1 start

By Herb Gould
Earlier this year, a newspaper in Omaha, Neb., asked me to write a column to introduce Nebraska fans to Illinois sports.
''The main thing you need to understand about the University of Illinois,'' I began, ''is that nothing is simple. Everything is complicated.''
That seems even more true now. Even last week, despite a 6-0 start by coach Ron Zook and his re-energized Illini, there was a lot of squawking from the anti-Zookers.
Jumping on Zook's two-point-conversion confusion at Indiana and the wobbly special teams that Zook coaches, some Illinois fans were trying to come up with scenarios in which offensive coordinator Paul Petrino moves up to head coach and Zook somehow moves out.
That was at 6-0.
After the Illini dropped to 6-1 with their unappetizing 17-7 loss Saturday to Ohio State, the anti-Zookers probably are sharpening the knives - even though 6-1 would have looked awfully good in August.
Talk about complicated.
Some people admire the Zook who wears his heart on his sleeve and uses that to lure recruits and pump them up. Others cringe at Zook's head-scratching decisions on game day and wonder whether his hyper side becomes a distraction to his players.
Zook downplayed the unrest Tuesday when I asked him if Illini Nation appreciates his team.
''I don't know,'' he said. ''All I can do is worry about the football team. The large majority of Illini fans are great fans. Like anywhere else, there's a small percentage of people who have opinions. We're no different than any other place. That's why it's such a great game. That's why it's at an all-time high for interest.''
That said, considering its fast start, Illinois' home attendance could be better. A crowd of 55,229 for Ohio State brought the average up to 48,365, but that's still 12,000 empty seats per game at 60,670-capacity Memorial Stadium. When you're in a league that averages more than 70,000 in attendance--and competing with six or seven big boys who average way more than that--that can't be overlooked.
It seems crazy to question Zook's future in Champaign if the Illini keep it going this fall. But he has 2 1/2 years left on a deal that pays him $1.75 million a year, and coaches tend to be signed for more than two years out.
That means athletic director Mike Thomas probably will need to act one way or another in the coming offseason.
If Illinois finishes strong, Zook will have delivered on the overhaul he began after the 2009 season - and apparently have earned the right to keep moving forward. But it's a trickier deal if fans aren't buying tickets because of Zook, especially in the likely event Petrino is weighing head-coaching offers.
Talk about complicated.
For now, the key will be to keep winning. And that starts Saturday at Purdue. There was more attention on the Illini's attempt to stay unbeaten against Ohio State, but Purdue is a bigger crossroads game.
If Illinois stumbles, the momentum of the 6-0 start will take a big hit. And Zook's critics will be emboldened.
All in all, this shapes up as a pivotal game for the Illini. One big key will be to tune out the pressure, an area where Illinois came up short against the Buckeyes.
''Ohio State did what they do,'' Zook said. ''We maybe sat back instead of going after it. I don't want to say we played tight, but we didn't play the way we're capable of playing. Sometimes you want something so bad . . . maybe we [coaches] put too much pressure on [the players].''
Ironically, the Illini will take on the Boilermakers just two days short of the two-year anniversary of Zook's low point, when Illinois lost 24-14 at Ross-Ade Stadium and fell to 1-6 on Oct. 24, 2009. That's the day former athletic director Ron Guenther answered calls for Zook's ouster by saying, ''There won't be a change at the top.''
That started the revamping that brought in Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who have been instrumental in putting the Illini in line for their first back-to-back bowl trips in 19 years.
Finish off this season nicely, and it's a pretty impressive turnaround - one Zook, his staff and his players can be proud of.
The trouble is, winning games is one thing; winning fans is another.
It's always complicated at Illinois.

Here's my Nov. 11 column on Penn State. Had some requests from readers who were having trouble finding it at . .

Say it ain't so, JoePa.

With one inexplicably monstrous lapse in judgment nine years ago, Joe Paterno cast a cloud over not merely Happy Valley, but the passionate world of college football.

When Penn State, a beacon for winning with good values, goes so horribly wrong, it raises questions about an entire sport. That's why the shocking accusations -that school officials covered up the predatory ways of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky - has transcended sports pages to become a national-news obsession.

Interim coach Tom Bradley, who replaced Paterno, will guide the No. 12 Nittany Lions Saturday vs. No. 19 Nebraska. It will be Senior Day, a time when seniors ought to be celebrated. Instead, the spotlight will be on the sideshow of Penn State playing under the cloud of scandal, and without JoePa coaching for the first time since 1949.

Paterno and his supporters seem to have a disconnect about the seriousness of his failure to stop Sandusky when informed of an appalling sex act with a 10-year-old in the Penn State locker room in 2002.

But the rest of the world knows. College football may never be the same.

Schools can never again let a coach have that much discretion or power, even one as beloved and seemingly noble as Paterno, the winningest coach in major-college history who had a reputation for doing things the right way.

Faced with a new level of potential disasters, coaches and administrators everywhere have a new set of worries, and another reason to devise new safeguards.

"I don't think it's a game changer in that you would hope you're being vigilant at all times,'' Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Sun-Times Thursday. "Will this be a wakeup call for some people? I'm sure that's the case. But I would hope it would be a part of people's DNA already.''

The Big Ten already was on alert when Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who had won six straight league titles, was felled last spring by a scandal in which his players sold jerseys and other team trinkets for tattoos.

"Everything that's happened in the last year has forced all of us to re-evaluate,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook told the Sun-Times. "You have to know what's going on in your program. Is that possible? I'm not sure, but I know we sure try.''

It's an imperfect science. Like virtually every other coach, Zook has had trying moments - some of them deserved, some not.

Beyond expressing compassion, neither Zook, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald nor Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly felt comfortable commenting on the wrenching Penn State situation.

"It's really sad,'' Fitzgerald said. "I don't have a whole lot more to say besides that.''

Asked if he's been following the news out of State College, Kelly said, "I didn't know that you couldn't. It has been on TV, on the radio. It's just a sad, sad situation. I just don't know too much about it because I've been focusing on here, but certainly my heart goes out to all the victims.''

"It's just an awful thing,'' Zook said. "I don't know the details, I won't comment on that. But it's something that, once again, you have to do things the right way in every aspect of your life.''

For all of his ups and downs, Zook, in his seventh year at Illinois, now stands second in Big Ten seniority, behind Kirk Ferentz, Iowa's 12th-year coach.

"There's so much out there now,'' Zook said. "Believe me, it's not just football. There's a lot more to being a head coach than just X's and O's. There's not nearly as much X's and O's as I wish there was.''

Penn State's inability to do something as obvious as refer child-molesting charges to the proper authorities should drive home the need for having better policies in place.

But disaster is always in the back of a coach's mind.

"You worry about driving down the road, and somebody being drunk and killing you,'' Zook said. "But you can't live like that. You just do the best you can and put it in God's hands.''

Senior safety Trulon Henry, the older brother of former wide receiver Arrelious Benn, was shot in the hand at an off-campus party early Sunday and will be sidelined for the rest of the season, Illini coach Ron Zook said.
Two other unidentified men also were wounded when shots were fired during a fight that broke out at the party.
Henry wasn't planning to attend the party, but went there to give a ride home to five or six teammates who wanted to leave an increasingly unruly scene, Zook said, adding that Henry was wounded when he attempted to play peacemaker.
``I spoke with Trulon, he called me around 4:30 or 5 a.m. and apologized,'' Zook said. ``He said all he was trying to do was help. He's a team leader, he's trying to help, and he ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
Zook said he was informed of the incident, in which shots broke out during a fight at the party, at about 3 a.m., shortly after it took place. Henry, who was shot in a ring finger, underwent surgery for the wound.
``When the phone rings at that hour, you know it's not good,'' Zook said, adding that he's not planning disciplinary action. ``This is the first issue we've had like this, with a curfew thing. It was late. I'm not going to deny that. But most college football teams don't normally have a curfew on Saturday night.''
Henry's brother, Benn, is the most high-profile recruit Zook has brought to Illinois. He now plays for Tampa Bay, which made him a second-round pick in 2010,
Henry, 27, who lives with his wife and daughter in Champaign, played at College of DuPage before transferring to Illinois. Since serving a four-year prison sentence for the armed robbery of a bank branch in a supermarket in Washington, D.C., Henry has been a model citizen.
Although it appears that Henry's college career is over, Zook said Henry is expected to make a full recovery, which will enable him to pursue a pro career.
This is the second time in three years that an Illinois football player has been wounded in a peacemaking role. Martez Wilson, a star linebacker from Simeon who now plays for New Orleans, was hospitalized in December, 2008, with stab wounds in the stomach and back after coming to the aid of former teammate D'Angelo McCray, who was being beaten outside a Champaign tavern.

With four touchdowns in three games, Illinois needs to get its offense going. Where to start? These stats say rushing yards lead to passing touchdowns, and the Illini agree.

Scoring 34.7 9.3
Passing TDs 11 2
Rushing yds 226.2 129
Passing yds 221.5 169.3
Coming off its bye week, Illinois faces a perplexing task.
Shut out in the first half of its last three games, it now will try to snap its three-game losing streak against No. 22 Michigan, which defeated it 67-65 in triple overtime last year, the highest scoring Big Ten game in history.
If this is going to be another shootout, the Illini say they'll be ready.
``We're always prepared to put points on the board,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ``If we take care of business, we'll be fine, regardless of what the score is.''
Since averaging 34.7 points when they opened with six straight wins, the Illini have put up just 28 points in their three losses, 21 of them when they were playing catch-up in the fourth quarter.
Coach Ron Zook remains optimistic that the offense has been recharged by last week's bye, which enabled the team to go over its fundamentals, heal up and recharge for its final three games.
``The signs that maybe we're coming out of it a bit?'' Zook said. ``We are a refreshed team. The attitude, the way they're running around out there. They're rested.''
Where did it get away from the offense? 
``I  don't have the answer exactly why,'' said Zook, who also saw his offense lose its swagger. ``You go back to the Ohio State game and they were pressing a bit. It really kind of started at the beginning of the Indiana game.''
One obvious explanation is that Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State are better defensively than the teams Illinois faced when it was winning.
Zook's point of emphasis during the bye week?
``Let's go back and do what we do,'' he said. ``Don't worry about having big plays. Just take what they give and line up and play.''
Another explanation: The offensive line wore down, and didn't give Scheelhaase the time he needed to connect with A.J. Jenkins on the deep balls that were a signature of the winning streak.
And another: Scheelhaase also wore down, a combination of the offensive line's decline and his aggressive running style. Since throwing 10 touchdown passes in the first six game, he has thrown two in the last three games.
``Nathan may have been [banged up], but he's not going to tell you unless it's  serious,'' Zook said. ``But there's no question the time off has helped everybody.''
Scheelhaase, who took some knocks on his throwing shoulder early in the season, said his throwing arm is fine, but said the week off has been a good time for the offense to regroup.  
``In the bye week, you get a chance to get back to basics,'' the quarterback said. ``So its does build some confidence. You're breaking things back down, it's always nice to have that. It's been very helpful to us as an offense.''
Illinois again will ``saddle up and ride'' senior running back Jason Ford, who has rushed for 183 yards on 34 carries, a 5.4 average, the last two games. In the four games before Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino made him the horse, Ford had 117 yards on 37 carries, a 3.2 average.
``The better you run the ball,'' Petrino said, ``the better you're going to be, and the better you're going to protect the passer. We've worked real hard on our timing, our execution and all the little details. I expect us to go out and execute it better.''
Restless fans will question the play-calling if Illinois continues to sputter.
But the running game buys the quarterback time to make throws, Scheelhaase knows. Which means the Illini need to do everything better.
``It's going to come down to execution,'' Scheelhaase said.

In case you missed it in the online edition--I couldn't find it, but my wife says I can't find anything--here's my Illini notebook from the 10-7 disappointment at Penn State.
I really liked Vic Koenning's defense of his defense. I think that could serve the Illini well as they try to snap their three-game losing streak and salvage some things in November.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.--The focus will be on a sputtering Illinois offense that has scored just 28 points in the last three games--and only seven points in the first three quarters of those games.
But defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sounds like a man who's found a unit he can take into battle.
``If anybody in this room has seen a defense play harder, I'll kiss their butt and give 'em 10 minutes to draw a crowd,'' the Oklahoma native said. ``Our guys played as hard as they could possbily play. The last two drives before halftime at Purdue, the whole second half there, the whole game here, they have been relentless.''
The defense, which also did a lot of good things against Ohio State, is looking more and more like Illinois' strength.

When Penn State safety Nick Sukay took down Nate Scheelhaase with a helmet-to-helmet shot in the second quarter, some wondered if Sukay might be subjected to an NFL-style disciplinary review.
That's not needed, said Scheelhaase, who returned to the game after taking a couple of plays off to lose the cobwebs
``Yeah, it hurt,'' the Illini QB said. ``But it didn't seem malicious. It was a good football play. You're gonna get dinged when you're playing hard. You could blame me for half the thing. I was running pretty hard at the kid.''
Freshman backup Reilly O'Toole didn't miss a beat in relief, completing 4 of 7 for 31 yards. Scheelhaase completed 9 of 16 for 63 yards, while Jason Ford ran for 100 yards on 24 carries against Penn State's stingy defense.
The victory was the 409th for Joe Paterno, which gives him the most victories by a Division I coach, one ahead of Grambling legend Eddie Robinson.
``I'm happy for him,'' Ron Zook said. ``I just wish it wouldn't have been me.''

Sometimes it feels like piling on, but nobody else asked, so I had to ask Ron Zook at his Tuesday press conference about an offense that has been shut out in the first three quarters of its 17-7 loss to Ohio State and 21-14 loss to Purdue.
How does a team  that put up 79 points in its first two Big Ten games (vs. Northwestern and Indiana) manage only 21 fourth-quarter points in its next two games.
``I don't know that I can explain it,'' Zook said Tuesday. ``If I had the answer for that, we wouldn't be shut out. Two things, defenses are playing pretty well, and we're missing on some things. It's not one thing, it's a play here, a play there--a consistency thing we have to get back together.''
After pausing, Zook continued with this:
``You just don't get bad. You just don't become a bad coach. It just doesn't happen. You work through those things. You make the tweaks you need to make and keep going.''
Gloomy as it looks for the Illini, who have lost two ugly ones since opening 6-0, a win at Penn State Saturday would put them back on track for a pretty solid season.
Unlikely as that may seem to some Illini skeptics, Penn State has issues offensively. And the Illini pulled off a 33-13 upset in Happy Valley a year ago.
One big difference this time: It's hard to imagine Penn State's defense being as banged up as it was in that game. 
If the Illini can make good on Zook's promise ``to go out and play loose,'' which has been a problem the last two weeks, they'll give themselves a chance to find out what they can do.
With the pressure mounting, though, that'll be easier said than done.
Looks like my picks got squeezed out of the print edition this week.
Sorry for posting so late, but here they are. . . 

Purdue at Penn State
Time: 11 a.m., BTN
The  records: Purdue 3-2, 1-0 Big Ten; Penn State 5-1, 2-0
The story line: Boilermakers, 1-5 at Penn State since Nittany Lions joined Big Ten, face rough road vs. offense-challenged Penn State, which is grinding out wins.
The line: Penn State by 12
Gould's pick: Penn State, 24-7

Indiana at No. 4 Wisconsin
Time: 11 a.m., ESPN2
The records: Indiana 1-5, 0-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 5-0, 1-0
The story line: Indiana, an 83-20 loser at Camp Randall last year, should cut the margin this year. But the rested Badgers will send the league's best offense against a struggling defense.
The line: Wisconsin by 40
Gould's pick: Wisconsin, 56-10

No. 11 Michigan at No. 23 Michigan State
Time: 11 a.m., ESPN
The records: Michigan 6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 4-1, 1-0
The story line: If Brady Hoke can take back the state, it'll be another big step. But this also is a big chance for Spartans, who have a lot of pieces in place.
The line: Michigan State by 2-1/2
Gould's pick: Michigan State, 35-30

Florida at No. 24 Auburn
Time: 6 p.m., ESPN
The records: Florida 4-2, 2-2 SEC; Auburn 4-2, 2-1
The story line: After being stomped by arguably the nation's two best teams, Alabama and LSU, it doesn't lighten up all that much for Florida. And retooling Auburn is better than expected.
The line: Florida by 2
Gould's pick: Auburn, 27-23

No. 6 Oklahoma State at No. 22 Texas
Time: 2:30 p.m., ESPN???
The records: Oklahoma State 5-0, 2-0 Big 12; Texas 4-1, 1-1 
The story line: Thorny Cowboys try to hand Longhorns, who were whipped 55-17 by Oklahoma, their second straight loss. Remember, no Big 12 title game means leagues games like this mean a lot.
The line: Oklahoma State by 7-1/2
Gould's pick: Oklahoma State, 38-24

No. 20 Baylor at No. 21 Texas A&M
Time: 11 a.m., FX??
The records: Baylor 4-1, 1-1 Big 12; Texas A&M 3-2, 1-1
The story line: After a tumultuous few weeks, Aggies need to hunker down vs. Baylor--or risk getting burned by explosive Bears QB Robert Griffin III.
The line: Texas A&M by 9
Gould's pick: Texas A&M, 38-34

No. 18 Arizona State at No. 9 Oregon
Time: 9:15 p.m., ESPN
The records: ASU 5-1, 3-0 Pac-12; Oregon 4-1, 2-0
The story line: An upset here would be huge for Arizona State, which doesn't play Stanford in the regular season. Ducks, a little under the radar after LSU loss, again might be the class of the Pac-12.
The line: Oregon by 16
Gould's pick: Oregon, 48-24

No. 7 Stanford at Washington State
Time: 6:30 p.m., Versus??
The records: Stanford 5-0, 3-0 Pac-12; Washington State 3-2, 1-1
The story line: No reason to expect a surprise, but it is a chance to see Heisman candidate Andrew Luck in action--at a decent hour.
The line: Stanford by 20
Gould's pick: Stanford, 42-17


Ohio State at No. 16 Illinois
Time: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7
The records: Ohio State 3-3, 0-2 Big Ten; Illinois 6-0, 2-0 
The story line: 
The line: Illinois by 4
Herb Gould's pick: Illinois, 38-35


Linebacker Jonathan Brown was suspended Monday by coach Ron Zook for one game for kneeing Northwestern lineman Patrick Ward in the groin. He'll sit out Illinois' trip to Indiana Saturday.
The Big Ten announced its support of the Brown suspension. In effect, the league was saying it won't add more penalties. The BTN capture of the incident can  be found on Youtube. . .
``He's a good person,'' Zook said of Brown, who's tied for second in Illini tackles and sixth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss, ``but he got caught up in the moment, made a serious mistake and must deal with the consequences."
Brown apologized to his family, teammates, Illinois fans and NU, saying, ``What I did was out of character and won't happen again."
Brown, a sophomore from Memphis who was named Big Ten defensive player of the week on Sept. 19, is expected to be replaced by Houston Bates, who was named the league's freshman of the week on Sept. 5.
* Illini WR AJ Jenkins shared BT player-of-the-week honors Monday with Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson. Jenkins' 268 receiving yards were the all-time third most in a Big Ten game.
* Illinois' home game vs. Ohio State will begin at 2:30 pm CDT and be televised by Ch. 7 in Chicago.

Clearly very disappointed with Jonathan Brown, Ron Zook would not rule out sitting the sophomore linebacker at Indiana Saturday.
``I'm gonna deal with it,'' Zook said tersely Sunday, a day after Brown was caught on television kneeing Northwestern lineman Patrick Ward in the groin. Not only were two officials, who called a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct, watching. The incident has been preserved on Youtube.
```I can guarantee you will never see that again,'' Zook said. `He knows better than that. Our team knows better than that.
Although Zook wouldn't go into details, it's possible Brown won't start, but will play at IU.
Brown is sixth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. Teammates Michael Buchanan (t-3rd) and Whitney Mercilus (5th) also are in the top six for Illinois' gritty defense, which is second in the Big Ten agains the run (79 yards a game) and tied for second with six interceptions.
Mercilus (five sacks) and Buchanan (four) are the Big Ten's top two in sacks. And cornerback Terry Hawthorne is tied for second in passes defended, with five passes broken up and one interception.

llini linebacker Houston Bates is the Big Ten freshman of the week, conference  officials announced. The redshirt freshman from Covington, La., had two tackles for a loss, including a sack, and recovered a fumble in Illinois' 33-15 victory over Arkansas State Saturday.
``I wanted to to exert some energy and I did,'' Bates said after the game. ``I'm definitely in the system now. I'm ready to play.''
Bates, who's listed behind sophomore Jonathan Brown at weakside linebacker, is part of a necessity-dictated youth movement in the Illinois linebacker corps.
``I've been saying since spring I couldnt wait to see him play,'' coach Ron Zook said. ``He loves to hit.''

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