Zook Hopes Changes Will Rejuvenate Illini

As Fighting Illini fans learned during the troubled Lou Tepper and Ron Turner eras, football teams that change offensive and defensive coordinators frequently are not in ideal situations. That is especially true when they bring in their own schemes, preventing continuity. Ron Zook hoped to avoid that, but problems the last two years forced his hand.

The two football coaches prior to Ron Zook were one-dimensional in their knowledge and interest. Lou Tepper was a defensive coach and cared little about offense. Ron Turner was a good offensive mind but placed less importance on defense.

Tepper hired one offensive coordinator after another, and each brought in his own system. This forced Illini offenses to start over each time. Ron Turner hired several defensive coordinators who also made major changes each time.

Teams play their best when they can use the same system year after year. By the time the players are seniors, they have 3-4 years of background and know their positions. Practices can be devoted to perfecting techniques rather than learning basics.

When Ron Zook came to Illinois, he brought with him an offense and defense he planned to use throughout his tenure. He knew his top aides were ambitious and would depart for their own head coaching jobs. Whether he knew the Illini's recent history or not, he knew the advantages of keeping the same systems.

"The whole idea was you're running the same system, you're running the same coaches. On defense the common denominator, I was gonna be here. If the coordinator left that was fine because I'm gonna be here. It wasn't that my defense was best. In this defense, I was gonna be here so why change it?

"So you're not changing offenses and defenses all the time. That's what happens with the programs that are able to maintain success. They've maybe had some coaching turnover, but you keep your systems."

Offensively, Zook brought a spread option offense because it felt it gave the Illini their best chance to win. His first coordinator was Mike Locksley, who had the makings of a future head coach. He brought in a couple other offensive assistants who had experience as offensive coordinators, hoping one would prove worthy when the time came.

"The whole philosophy is, you'd like to have somebody on the staff you could move up and run the offense. It was pretty common knowledge that Mike Locksley would eventually move on.

"What you wanted to do was have one of those guys take over and just keep going on offense. We didn't have one of those guys that I felt like could run the offense. So we decided to go out."

Locksley left after the 2008 season. Texas Christian offensive coordinator Dick Schultz was hired to replace him. Zook had to find someone willing to coach the Illinois offense, which limited his options.

"There were coaches that didn't want to come because they weren't involved in what we were gonna do."

Zook denies there was inner turmoil from bringing in an outsider to lead the offense. But the offense struggled enough that Schultz was fired after the 2009 season, along with three of the four other offensive coaches.

"Obviously, that idea (offensive continuity) didn't work."

Arkansas assistant Paul Petrino was hired last winter, and he is being allowed to install his pro-style offense along with two other assistants who have previous experience with it. It isn't what Zook preferred, but he felt he had no choice.

Similar problems arose on defense. He groomed assistants to become coordinators, even allowing two of them to share the load the past three years. But he wasn't getting the results he needed. He wanted to keep the defense the same, but he also needed a strong leader who would demand top performance from his players.

Vic Koenning was hired as the new defensive coordinator last winter. While many of the basics of the defense are the same as before, Koenning is being allowed to add his own nuances. Just like on offense, Illini defenders are having to learn new things. It isn't ideal, but it is necessary.

Zook had the right idea about how to maintain consistency on offense and defense. But results on the field forced changes.

"The whole thought process was stable, it's just not the way it worked out."

Zook had to fire friends, people he had come to respect. But he wants Illinois to win, so he did what he had to do.

"They're coaches. You have problems. You fix them, and you go win."

Petrino and Koenning brought new life to the program, and the players appeared to be learning the new systems at a reasonable pace this spring. Part 8 of this 9-part series continues a discussion of the current team and its prospects.

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