About six weeks or so after letting us all know head football coach Ron Zook was staying but “changes would be made”, U of I alum and Athletic Director Ron Guenther emerged from the wilderness last week with two shiny new coordinators in tow. Paul Petrino, formerly of Arkansas and various other places his brother Bobby has coached of late is the new Offensive Coordinator, and Vic Koenning, most recently at Kansas State, will serve as Defensive Coordinator. Both new assistants will make big money (among the most in the Big 10) and presumably take a larger share of the decisions and strategy on themselves as part of the new football way espoused by Guenther.
And what is this new method? Call it the Paterno method or the Bowden method. You simply let your top assistants run their units and call most of the shots while representing the program. The Zooker is a great recruiter and a players’ coach and he represents the University well. But the results haven’t been there, mostly due to a lack of discipline (stupid penalties and mistakes), lack of fundamentals, and inability to make tactical adjustments. In other words he ain’t the best gameday coach.
This time last year, yours truly was calling for both new offensive and defensive coordinators and here’s why. In addition to the three complaints listed above, we observed through the Big 10 Network’s pseudo-reality show The Journey, which followed Illini football through the season, a bunch of assistants on Zook’s staff who had energy and enthusiasm but didn’t appear as the brightest bulbs on the tree. In particular, I refer to the two-headed defensive coordinator nightmare known as Disch and Mallory. They were all like Zook: rah-rah emotion guys. And as it turns out, the departed Mike L0cksley was the one schemer on the staff. It’s a simple bit of college football algebra: you need schemers on the team to go along with the as rah-rah guys. You need students of the game who can adapt and adjust. And when you’re at Illinois, where you play several games a year in which the other team has better talent, this becomes even more pivotal. See how it works in places like Cincinnati, or Boise State, or even Iowa. That’s called good coaching.
Having listened to interviews of both Petrino and Koenning, I think we’re finally on the right track. Petrino truly sounds like an evil genius in training, and he wants to implement more pro-style offensive sets and focus on getting the ball to the best weapons. Too bad we didn’t try that before Rejus Benn left… The only question with him is how quickly he can get the system in place and make it work. Petrino has head coach ambitions, so he needed to get away from his brother and prove his own mettle. He’s also brought along two new assistants as position coaches and this should be a good thing for the Illini.
Koenning had less to say, but he did promise to emphasize tackling and ball-pursuit. He also said his approach was to emphasize a few areas of improvement rather than everything, because if you don’t focus on a few improvements nothing gets better. He’s an experienced guy who is known for creative blitzing, which will come as a welcome change from the pure vanilla bend-until-you-break approach of the Disch-Mallory era.
Both these guys have two-year deals, which implies Zook has two more years (not just one) to turn it around. It’s an interesting approach by Guenther, who stated he didn’t want to start-over by scuttling the entire staff. Ronnie G. has taken a lot of heat for this decision, but for a school like Illinois, which does not financially prostrate itself before the altar of college athletics, or have the long-standing tradition to fall back on, or have a crazy rich alum willing to personally break the bank for a new head coach, it’s probably the best approach. Only time will tell.
I am not a Guenther basher and happen to think he’s been a very good AD following a long period of indifference. Like the venerable one, Loren Tate, I don’t think you can discount the new building construction, operating in the black, and the mostly good hires over which he’s presided. Mark Tupper has a similar take on the situation. And implicit in Guenther’s statement is one key fact that gives me some optimism: Zook acknowledges the need to change and has said he’s willing to enact said change. So I’m hoping Petrino and Koenning can help him deliver. College Football is a rough-yet-elitist arena, but the Illini should and could be a perennial bowl team that can challenge for the Big 10 in it’s best years. That’s what we’re hoping for.