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 21/2 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 .â€‰â€‰.â€‰â€‰. 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.