Zook Explains Coaching Change Decisions

The Fighting Illini football team played poorly in 2009, and changes were necessary. New offensive and defensive coordinators were hired, and four other coaches were either let go or left for other jobs. It was a traumatic time for Ron Zook and his team, but it had to be done.

Illinois made several coaching changes after last season. Replacements were hired for five coaches who helped lead the Illini to the 2007 Rose Bowl. Were those coaches suddenly less capable than before?

"No," says Illini head coach Ron Zook. "Those coaches we made a change with are all good coaches, they're all great people. But it's getting players to do what they're supposed to do.

"Coaching isn't necessarily what you know, it's what you can make your players know and perform and do. That's the thing that we weren't doing. We weren't performing at the level we needed to perform at."

The 2007 team was hungry, perhaps more determined to win than the 2008 and 2009 groups. Zook agrees that hunger to win is important. Players are more willing to accept coaching when they place winning ahead of other self-interests.

"It's what the players can do, not what the coaches can do. You had that element three years ago. They were tired of losing and would do whatever was asked of them to do from a demanding part."

Hunger or not, the Illini played poorly last year on both defense and offense. Zook has had a history of success as a defensive coach. The porous Illinois defense forced him to make a change.

"And that's why we made a change. I couldn't stand it anymore. The system that we were running was a system that was in the top 10 in the NFL. Obviously, we tailored it to our players, but we as a coaching staff didn't get it across.

"So it was time to make a change. If it was one system that was best, we'd all be doing it because everybody has to win. It's a system that your coaches believe in. If they don't believe in it, your players aren't gonna believe in it."

Both sides of the ball played reasonably well at times last year, but they didn't play well at the same time.

"You go back to the first part of the season, we played well enough on defense to win. The offense didn't show up. And then the last half of the season, the offense played well enough to win and the defense didn't show up. You've got to get the whole football team playing."

Mike Schultz was brought in to run the offense in 2009, but he was joining an offensive staff that had already established a pecking order. Taking charge of the group might have been difficult for anyone. In addition, he was asked to modify his preferred offensive style to accommodate a team possessing a four-year starting quarterback and NFL caliber receiver.

Was Schultz facing too many obstacles to success?

"Everything was laid on the table exactly what was gonna happen. That's why we interviewed several people. I didn't feel like it was a smart thing to do to change the offense when you had a guy who had played in the offense for three straight years.

"Once again, if there was one system that was best, everyone would be using it. But in terms of the group working together, there were no chemistry issues or anything like that. For whatever reason, we didn't get our players to play at the level they needed to play at."

Urban myths rose up like wildflowers as the 2009 season proceeded, with various fans creating phony reasons for Illini failures. There were numerous valid reasons that combined to create the traumas of the season, things Zook readily admits. Zook was also blamed for things that were not his doing, but he has no desire to correct the record.

"Why do you have to dispel those rumors? It's a new year. It's evident that things didn't work the way we wanted them to work last year, so I don't think you need to go back.

"People are gonna believe what they want to believe. Our job is to go play this year. Last year is over. Let's learn from it and let's go. I don't think you have to go back because people aren't gonna change their minds. They've made up their mind to what they think.

"Everything was laid on the table. Nobody was tying anybody's hands. When things weren't going right, they wanted an excuse, they wanted a scapegoat. That's part of it."

True. But Illini fans need to heal the wounds they've endured since last fall before they can learn to love again.

"You know how you heal, you go out and work. Anything we say now about last year is going to be disputed. I don't have to dispute last year. Let's talk about this year. Whatever happened happened. No matter what I say, it's not gonna change what people think. What we have to do is go win."

In parts 7 and 8 of this 9-part interview, Zook talks about the new schemes on offense and defense and the prospects for 2010.

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