Koenning Assumes Difficult Assignment

Fighting Illini football players experienced a double whammy of negativity over the weekend. First, they embarrassed themselves with their play at Minnesota. Then they were told their beloved head coach was fired. The man assigned the task of rebuilding spirits and possibly preparing for a bowl game is defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. It's not an enviable position.

When Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas fired Ron Zook, he had to find a temporary replacement while he searched for a successor. He needed someone to pick up the pieces and provide structure for the players. And he needed someone to lead the team in a likely bowl game. He chose defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who was a head coach at Wyoming previously.

Koenning accepted the job reluctantly.

"It's not a situation you want to be in. You've got to deal with a lot of emotions, you've got to deal with players. There's a thousand things to do. Head coaching responsibilities aren't easy; that's why they pay them a lot."

Koenning has great respect for Zook, who has always been a tireless worker. He must now find a way to handle the many responsibilities of a head coach in addition to his role as defensive coordinator.

"Coach Zook is one of the hardest working head coaches I've ever seen, and I've been around a few of those. There's a workload that he did that some slack's got to be taken up somewhere. There will be some redistribution there. I kind of hesitated when Mike asked me to do that because I knew what the situation.

"Any of the coaches on the staff would have been great. When he asked me, I didn't want to let anybody down. I think any coach on the staff would have done a great job if he was asked to do it. We have a good staff, an experienced staff. That's gonna make things a lot easier.

"But there are a lot of responsibilities that Coach Zook did that some slack's got to be taken up somewhere. It falls back to me."

With final exams coming up shortly, academics is a high priority.

"We've tripled up our efforts in the academic world right now. There's a week and a half to go in the semester, so we've targeted those guys that need extra work, and they're working extremely hard. There are two ways to look at it: It's academic two-a-days or academic two-minute drill.

"The academic staff is full force. They're not rotating anymore; they're down there all the time."

An equally important task is rebuilding shattered psyches after a season where once soaring optimism toward reaching lofty goals degenerated into something completely opposite. Many Illini players are extremely discouraged right now. Koenning must find a way of reversing that feeling.

"We've got a lot of work to do healing. We talked to Lou (Hernandez) down in the weight room. Lifting weights can kind of break down your muscles to build up, but they can actually boost your enthusiasm. You feel better when you come out of the weight room.

"That's what we've got to do. We've got to find some way to eliminate the negativity and feel better about things. The way to feel better is to win. Winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. We've got to turn the cycle somehow, and maybe it's getting "A's" in classes. That's a good start, so that's what we're trying to do."

Some players were too upset last weekend to desire participation in a bowl game. While no game is a certainty, there's a possibility the Illini will receive an invitation somewhere. Right now, Koenning is unsure whether his players will wish to attend a bowl game.

"In my mind, I've got to get a feel whether the players want to play in a bowl. I'm big on actions speak louder than words. Our actions on Saturday night have indicated that. But there may also have been a lot of other factors, the stress of the situation and whatnot.

"I want to get a commitment from them that's something they want to do. No one wants to go through what we went through Saturday night. I think those guys just need to step out of the way because there's probably enough guys that want to do it.

"I'm gonna try to get a little leadership group going. I'm gonna give them some duties and chores. We need every oar in the water, every single one. We don't need anybody to be a dead weight. This is an opportunity for guys to stray and go their own way, but we can't do that."

Koenning would play a bowl game if he had just 25 players on board. One team for offense, one for defense and three specialists. But he thinks the Illini will come around after a few days of healing.

"I don't know if people feel like we deserve a bowl or not. But I think for our seniors, if they want it and are willing to go out and go hard, if we play like we did against Wisconsin, especially the first half, then I think they'll want it."

Whether they go bowling or not, the Illini need to come together as a team and rekindle the closeness they felt for each other in Camp Rantoul. Koenning wants the offense to know he doesn't blame them for the season results. The Illini team cannot function properly if one side of the ball is blaming the other.

"It's us. I've got to make sure the offensive players particularly understand it's not a we-and-they thing. Too much always gets made of we-and-they. We had chances on defense to win a bunch of games, but we didn't hold them at the end. There were leads we couldn't hold. So there's no blame on one side of the ball. It's coaches and players alike. It's us, there's no we-and-they.

"That's probably gonna be one of the harder things to do, to get to know some of those guys as intimately as I know the defensive guys. I can go to them, and they can cry on my shoulder, or I can cry on their shoulder. There's not that relationship with the offensive guys. I'm not gonna have time to build it, so we've just got to do the best we can."

Besides all these other concerns, often overlooked is the devastating effect a coach firing has on the assistant coaches. Koenning and the other assistants must take care of their own situations also.

"First and most of all, we've got to take care of our families. Our families are going through a really tough time. I got a text from my wife, something about aging at warp speed. And then we've all got to find other jobs. That takes some phone calls.

"Our number two or three job is, they're out recruiting and I'm riding herd around here to get spirits up and try to get guys to rally a little bit."

Yes, assistant coaches are supposed to recruit for Illinois despite knowing they may not be here themselves to coach the recruits.

"A lot of coaches are on the road recruiting. That's a tough duty for them, not knowing who the head coach is gonna be. But this is a fine institution, a great school. I've talked to a few of the commitments, and they're doing well. They're still excited about Illinois. That's our job, and we're gonna try to do our job the best we can."

Some have suggested Thomas hire an offensive guru and retain Koenning as defensive coordinator, who has made remarkable progress in two years. The likelihood of that is slim, but he's open to suggestion.

"Each situation is different. My family is really happy here. We'll have to cross that bridge if the opportunity presents itself. A couple years ago we got 93rd, and then 38th and now 8th. We'd like to keep it going, but life's full of changes. We'll just see what presents itself.

"I'm gonna actively try to get a couple head coaching jobs that are open. I know I'm better than my record. The guy after me (at Wyoming) had some players, and they were able to go to a couple bowl games. Those players left, and he got fired soon after because they ran out of players."

The reality of college football coaching is harsh. There's little opportunity to build a program; immediate results are required. Koenning had that problem as head coach at Wyoming, and it is even more difficult at a school like Illinois.

"It takes three years to build. Today in college football, you usually don't have three years. At a place like this, you can't hardly recruit junior college guys, so it takes another year because you have to develop the youth.

"The 2007 and 2008 classes, I know there's not as many guys here as would have helped. That's probably part of what happened with the depth issues. I don't think it's Coach Zook or anything he did. I just think it's a combination of a bunch of things.

"I respect the way he tried to handle things. I made public in weeks 6, 7, 8 that he was being steadfast. It was unfortunate to watch him have to go through that. It brings back some sad memories from Wyoming for me."

While Thomas is flying around the country contacting prospective coaches and Illini Nation is having visions of a splash hire dancing in their heads, Illini players are suffering. Koenning knows helping them is more important than a bowl game, a new job or any other aspect.

"This is a people business, and we're here for the players. I truly believe I'm put here as a server. I'm here to serve these guys.

"Some guys need to be loved, and now is the time to love them. And some guys have got to be kicked in the butt a little bit, and I'm perfectly capable of doing that. And sometimes you've got to grab them, put them on your back and carry them.

"Whatever it takes we've got to do, until the players don't allow us to help them. If you do what's in the best interest of the players, it's usually in the best interest of the team. The team obviously always comes first."

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