Mike Thomas Explains Firing Decision

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced today the firing of Ron Zook as football coach. Zook led the Illini for seven years and made the program competitive in the Big 10 again. However, Thomas wants championships and feels a change in leadership is needed to reach his ambitious goals.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced the firing of head football coach Ron Zook today. He provided the following opening statement upon meeting the media.

"I made the announcement earlier today that Ron Zook would not be retained as football coach at the University of Illinois. In a lot of ways, it's a difficult decision. As I said from the very beginning, I would assess the total body of work, not just the work I've observed the last three months or so. That is not inconsistent with what I would do with our other programs.

"I felt after that assessment it was time for new leadership for the University of Illinois football program, and it was in our best interests to move as quickly as possible.

"I met with Ron this morning in my office and informed him of that decision. Later in the day, Ron met with his assistant coaches and student-athletes. I also met with his assistant coaches and student-athletes.

"I need to tell you, you make these decisions for a variety of reasons. Ron Zook is a fine human being. It was easily apparent in the short time I've been with him. As I told him this morning, if it was about Ron the person, he certainly would be worthy of a lifetime contract.

"But there's other things that come into play. And those are the reasons that I'm sitting here today."

Thomas has expectations for all his athletic teams, and especially the revenue-producing football program. He felt Zook did not produce the results needed.

"There's a lot of things that go into this. Primary is success within your own conference. The last seven years, we've won roughly one third of our Big 10 games. We have a winning record with one Big 10 team, that being Indiana.

"We want to win Big 10 championships, and I don't see any reason why the Fighting Illini can't be thought of in those terms. Are we competitive in a very good football conference? When you're competing at the highest level, that's when your name's in the national picture for BCS bowl games, and you're traditionally thought of as a top 25 team."

Poor attendance for home games was considered as well.

"I would gauge that more on the competitive success and having a history of winning. I think it is easy to use the economy as an excuse, but there's a lot of schools right now that are filling up their stadiums, and people are finding a way to make it work.

"This program, you need to feel like there's hope; there needs to be a certain buzz around it. They're getting excited, and you're selling tickets. The hope is someday demand exceeds capacity. Whether we're playing College of Charleston or Michigan, we're playing in front of a filled stadium."

Zook's job was in jeopardy before the last two games, but Thomas says he held out hope for two more wins.

"Knowing the last couple weeks that something would change my mind, that we would do something competitively that would give me hope for the future. Certainly, up in Minneapolis I was hoping for a better outcome for our staff, for our student-athletes and for our fans. That didn't come. This is an ongoing process, but last night I came up with the final conclusion it was time to move."

Thomas has named the Illini defensive coordinator as Interim Head Coach in anticipation of a bowl bid.

"I've moved forward naming Vic Koenning as interim coach to provide stability during the transition. But also knowing that we need to prepare for an expected bowl invitation that hopefully will come down the road in the near future.

"I think our student-athletes have respect for all our coaches. Not only the success the defense had this year, but Vic has also been a head coach. He's been there and has a good feel for what that looks like. I'm comfortable with him in that position.

"He was more than willing to take on that role because at the end of the day, it's all about the student-athletes. Making sure there's some normalcy moving forward is possible, but also the intent we're preparing for a bowl game."

While Thomas has only been on the job three months, his coaching hire will be a defining moment for his tenure as athletic director.

"I think it's an extremely critical hire. Our job is about people. To have success in our other sports, the revenue sports of football and basketball need to be healthy. That's certainly the case here.

"Getting us on a track where we're having consistent success in football would translate to a certain buzz in the community, which would lead to more people coming to Memorial Stadium, which would lead to more revenue, is extremely important."

Thomas feels Illinois has much to offer top coaching candidates.

"Us at the University of Illinois should be thankful we have a lot to sell. We're a member of the Big 10 conference, which is the best conference in the country when you look at academics and athletics. We've got great instruction, we've got great resources, there's great facilities. We've got a great fan base, a great alumni base.

"The people here in Champaign are tremendous, they're welcoming, they're warm. We are in a great academic institution. So we've got a lot to sell. If I'm gonna get into competition with others who are looking for a head football coach, I certainly would put our tail of the tape up against anybody's."

He shares the criteria he seeks in a football leader.

"My history leans more toward head coaches, but this is an open process. I wouldn't be exclusive to just head coaches. I'm a fan of hiring someone who believes in a holistic approach.

"It's not just about what happens on the field of competition, though we're here to win championships. What their philosophy is related to academics, their kids in the community and being first-rate ambassadors. Compliance is important. Someone with a clean record that deals day-to-day with integrity. And someone who can be the face of our program.

"In saying a holistic approach, at the end of the day you want someone who has a successful track record on the field of competition, in recruiting and in the classroom and community, and that does things the right way."

Thomas is wasting no time in his search.

"The process begins immediately. It's my hope that concludes as soon as possible. I can't give you an exact timeline. I'm not gonna get into naming names. Once this process starts, the next time you hear from me as it relates to the search process is when we're sitting up here announcing a new head football coach.

"I will take the lead with the search committee. I will involve other folks in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. Certainly, I will want President Hogan and Chancellor (Phyllis) Wise comfortable with the final outcome. Hopefully this process is buttoned up well before we kick off our bowl game.

"At this point in time, I'm not planning on using a search firm. I certainly reserve the right to go that direction if I feel it's necessary. We will do our best to work through university rules and regulations. I will certainly abide by those."

Head coach salaries are increasing exponentially, and so are assistant salaries. Thomas plans to be proactive in that regard.

"I think that depends on the coach and where you end up. Salaries are going up all the time. You need to keep up with that if you want to be competitive. We don't want to lose a great candidate because we can't afford to pay the going rate."

Thomas expects Illini assistant coaches to continue working on both recruiting and bowl preparation. And he intends to reach out to players already committed for next year.

"It is my intent to honor any commitments that we have out right now. Hopefully those student-athletes still have an interest in attending the University of Illinois."

Thomas made it clear the new coach would not be starting from scratch. In that sense, the Illini owe a dept of gratitude to Zook and his assistants.

"I don't think this is a reclamation project. There's tweeking, but I don't think it's a candidate for a reality show makeover. I think we've got a great foundation base. That's a credit to Coach Zook and his staff. There are some things we need to do, but I don't think were at ground zero starting over by any means.

"Coach Zook was great. We both left the room very positive. The best I can tell, he's handled it very well. Ron the person, I don't think anyone questions that. He's an A+ person, and has done great things for us. He's set a foundation that hopefully we can work off of and get the program to where we really want it to be."

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