Even if Illini Nation didn’t need any more evidence, yesterday’s abject 27-7 loss to lowly Minnesota must have sealed it. The Zooker’s time is done. Let’s move on. Failing to get above .500 with one of the most favorable schedules in school history, dropping six in a row, horrid special teams, lack of offense – these are your on-the-field-reasons. Recruiting woes, the inability to fill Memorial Stadium more than once, and general apathy among home-staters provide additional motivation.
Yesterday on WDWS (Flagship Illini station), Jim Turpin and Loren Tate discussed the situation at length on the Saturday Sportsline. They spoke about sealing up the borders (never gonna happen), getting recruits, building excitement and energy around the program. They discussed the need to just get some wins, to build some consistency. And what it comes down to is getting the right guy to captain the ship. This will be new AD Mike Thomas’s most important and perhaps defining task.
If Purdue can rise up under Joe Tiller, Northwestern under it’s last coaches, hell – Missouri was nowhere before bringing in Pinkel… To move it up a notch – consider Iowa, with its consistency, or the way Kansas State and Oklahoma State have made themselves relevant. But the real standard for how it could or should be are our noisy neighbors to the north: the Wisconsin Badgers. 20 years ago Wisconsin was a doormat, had been bad for years and years. They hired Barry Alvarez, who built momentum, excitement, and consistency, which has continued now under Biliema. Now the Badgers have won 10 games for the third straight year, their atmosphere is great, and they go shoulder to shoulder with the NCAA’s sacred cow. Two factors here: they hired the right guy, and they spend the money to keep it going.
20 years ago the Illini were in good shape too – certainly above Wisconsin. But a series of unfortunate – and lets’s face it, cheap – hires at the head coaching spot brought us from Mackovic to Tepper to Turner to Zook. Oof. You have to find the right guy, and you have to get a little lucky. Illinois has done neither. Fortunately, the Orange & Blue are in a premier conference and adjacent to major media markets. The facilities have been mostly upgraded to a competitive standard thanks to former AD Ron Guenther, and the athletics department has stressed NCAA compliance to the bone for the last decade-and-a-half and are blemish free. And of, course, Illinois is a great, great school. Someone could win at Illinois. Someone could elevate the program. And realizing we’re not going to spend Alabama or Ohio State money, accepting our lot in the vast unwashed of college football, who?
So here’s a very preliminary and entirely uninformed shortlist, compiled by a loyal Illini who has absolutely no insight to the situation as to who might even be interested in coming to Champaign-Urbana. Ain’t blogging great?
- Mike Leach – Former coach at Texas Tech, and the name being bounced around for nearly every opening since his firing two years ago. Leach has a rep for great and exciting offense and for being a royal pain to administrators. If you don’t recall the circumstances of the controversy, check the wiki. It’s interesting. As a fan, I’d love to get a big personality and high-scoring offense in here – and Leach did turn around Texas Tech. He may not be a Mike Thomas kind of guy, though.
- Kevin Sumlin – Coach at the University of Houston (undefeated and rolling up ridiculous offensive stats). Sumlin would be the Beemsville candidate of choice. He played at Purdue, assisted with the Boilers, Minnesota, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma. He has style and knows how to win. As a matter of fact, Illinois would have to compete with a significant counter-offer from Houston as well as other potential suitors if he were even interested in moving. Not likely, but what a hire Sumlin would be.
- Todd Monken – offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Monken grew up in Illinois and played quarterback at Knox College in Galesburg. He has been an assistant at LSU, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and now Ok. State. He’s only been there a year, though and hasn’t been a head coach yet. Probably too much of a gamble for Mike Thomas – but this is the kind of guy you catch on the upswing and then hope to hold on to.
- Vic Koenning – The current Illini defensive coordinator deserves, by his performance alone, some consideration. Hopefully he gets an interview. Hopefully he considers sticking around even if he doesn’t get the job. Koenning’s defense probably preserved Zook’s job an extra year – a mixed bag but testament to his effectiveness as a coach.
- Jim McElwain – offensive coordinator/QBs coach at Alabama, was with Nick Saban back in his MSU days. McElwain seems like the kind of guy in line for a head gig, and he’s been with the Tide three years now. Would he relish the challenge of kickstarting the Orange & Blue?
- Tim Beckman – Current head coach at Toledo in the MAC, and a younger guy with assistant experience at Ohio State, Oklahoma State, and Auburn. Toledo has been consistently good the last few years, and Big 10 teams have done well when looking to the MAC conference. Mike Thomas knows the MAC pretty well.
Would any of these guys be interested? Are any of them on the AD’s radar? We will know soon enough. Chime in with your thoughts and preferences…