Imagine, the roller-coaster, up-and-down, on-the-fence members of Illini Nation who were calling for the firings of football coach Ron Zook and athletic director Ron Guenther only a few months ago are now packing their bags for a bowl game and conceding that the Zookster has saved his job for at least another year.
In fact, Illini Nation has found an old target to spew their displeasure--basketball coach Bruce Weber. He recruited one of the nation's best young classes, including McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond of Waukegan, but Illini performances in their first two exhibition games didn't meet with the critics' high expectations.
Zook deserved a lot of credit. Illini Nation should be happy, overjoyed, ecstatic. This is a rare occasion when a coach is on the hot seat before the season begins and turns his program around, especially when he is in his sixth year. He has had only one good season in five and was targeted as the college coach who was most likely to be fired this season. But look what Zook has done.
He made great moves in bringing in who coordinators who knew what they were doing. He changed the whole culture of Illinois football by hiring Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense).
Look what's going on in Champaign. There is whole different atmosphere. The players are more focused, more aggressive, not as passive as in past years. Zook and his program were at the end of the rope and it didn't look like anything could save them but something did save them.
Why did Petrino and Koenning come to Illinois? They were taking a chance. The odds were against them being able to turn the program around and maintaining their jobs for another season. But they were confident that they could turn it around quickly. Petrino is as confident as his brother Bob, the head coach at Arkansas. And Koenning had success at Kansas State. He was looking for a bigger challenge and more authority.
For his part, Zook has always been known as a great recruiter and a good delegator of authority. To his credit, he had a positive attitude. He was widely criticized last year but nothing seemed to bother him. He stood his ground and came back swinging.
Sticking with Juice Williams at quarterback cost them. Coming in with Nathan Scheelhaase was a better decision, a young quarterback with a future. Illini Nation didn't know anything about Scheelhaase when he was recruited but, if you'll recall, I said from the outset that the Kansas City product was a big-timer.
I loved how he ran and threw the ball at the San Antonio combine as a high school senior. He was a four-star quarterback with a great arm and great feet and a great feel for the game. I said Illinois got a big-time quarterback from the outset. Williams had a stronger are but he never was able to show any touch, which is why he isn't in the NFL.