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Just The Sports: How Does He Still Have A Job: Part 1

Just The Sports

Thursday, April 01, 2010

How Does He Still Have A Job: Part 1

Just how or why Ron Zook continues to be employed as the head coach of the college football team for the University of Illinois is unfathomable. Other than a 2007 season that saw the Fighting Illini win nine of thirteen games and culminated in a Rose Bowl Appearance and a subsequent Rose Bowl blowout loss, nothing Ron Zook has done as the head coach helps explain why Illinois continues to have faith that he will do anything but field future teams that will win more than they lose. Yet, even after the 2008 season where the Fighting Illini went 5-7, the powers to be at Illinois decided it would be a right idea to give Zook a one-year contract extension that now takes the length of his contract to 2014. Of course, Zook rewarded their confidence with a record of 3-9 for the 2009 season.

Please humor me for a minute while I play a hypothetical game that requires the player to possess a modicum amount of common sense. Pretend for a moment that the University of Illinois had a football head coach before hiring Ron Zook. We shall name this mythical predecessor Ron Turner and say he coached from 1997-2004. Since he was fired, one would imagine that for his successor to continue to be allowed to have a job, the successor would need to outdo what Turner did. If the successor fielded teams that were no better than Ron Turner's, would you continue to let him coach your college's team?

Congratulations; if you said no, then you are qualified to work for the University of Illinois. Zook has been the head coach of the Fighting Illini for the past five seasons and since then, his teams have put up virtually the same stastistics as Ron Turner's eight squads. On offense, the only statistically significant difference between the two tenures is that Zook's teams are a more prolific running team; they have averaged 4.9 yards per carry to Turner's teams' 3.9 yards per carry. However, that extra 1.0 yard per carry has not translated to more points for the Zook-led Illini; their 23.7 points per game are barely better than Turner's teams' 23.2 points per game. The lack of added game is not surprising since an increase in passing yards per attempt is a much better advantage to have over an increase in running yards per carry. Unfortunately, Zook has failed to develop any sort of proficient passing game, just one of many strikes against him.

Defensively, Zook again failed to improve over a coach who only had a 35-57 (.380 winning percentage) record; Zook's overall record is 21-39 (.350 winning percentage). Actually, Zook's teams have been worse defending the pass, allowing a 60.2% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, statistically significantly worse than the Illinois teams of Ron Turner. Still, there is little difference in the amount of points opponents have scored per game. Zook's teams allowed 28.6 points per game to the 27.9 points per game of Turner's squads, completely erasing the minimal advantage Zook's teams had on the offensive side of the ball. The comparison gives further evidence to the fact Zook has failed to improve on Turner's tenure.

The struggles of Ron Zook should provide a cautionary tale to athletic directors across the nation. There are simply too many contract extensions given too early to head coaches, usually at the first sign of success without first making sure the coach is capable of duplicating his team's accomplishments. Zook received a three-year contract extension in the middle of the 2007 season at a time when his teams had gone 9-21 (.300 winning percentage). Therefore, it is little surprise his teams have continued to struggle to win games on a consistent basis. Athletic directors should be more frugal with their contract extensions instead of handing them out like candy on Halloween. Otherwise, they too might end up with a Ron Zook.

It is really hard for me to imagine what more Ron Zook has to do to be fired, but I will be interested in seeing if he can do so anytime soon. Until then, the fans of the Fighting Illini might want to find something more productive to do with their time during the college football season than to watch Ron Zook's teams lose on the field.

Note: The statistics for Ron Turner's team do not include the 1997 game against the Louisville Cardinals where the Fighting Illini lost 26-14; the box score was unavailable.



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