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Zook walks out, the morning after--assessing the damage

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 ThursdayZook, Illini at crossroads; Purdue game looms large for coach who still has his critics despite team’s 6-1 startBy Herb Gouldhgould@suntimes.comEarlier 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.